Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, in a rejection of a concerted Soviet effort to drive a wedge between Washington and its allies, indicated Tuesday that he supports President Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense plan.
A senior U.S. official said Craxi's comments, paralleling remarks last month by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, demonstrated a steady reduction in European jitters over the $26-billion research program that the Soviets have said threatens to scuttle the U.S.-Soviet arms control talks that will begin next week in Geneva.
"There has been no secret for over a year that there are some qualms over the Strategic Defense Initiative (the formal name for the program popularly called "Star Wars") in Europe," said the official, who briefed reporters on the understanding that he would not be identified. "But there has been a lessening of concern over time."
Week After Gromyko Visit
Standing beside Reagan as they emerged from the White House after a two-hour meeting over lunch, Craxi was restrained--but nevertheless supportive--in discussing the space defense plan just a week after Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko had visited Rome to denounce the program as a dangerous escalation of the arms race.
"I am convinced that the basic goals of United States policy remain defense and peace based on a balance of forces," Craxi said. "The President has assured me that these same goals will be pursued through the SDI, from whose research program we will derive mutual advantages in scientific and technological fields.
"We attach fundamental importance to the forthcoming Geneva negotiations," he said. "We are fully convinced that a substantial, balanced and verifiable reduction of armaments is the essential condition for a stable peace."
Later, at a news conference, Craxi said: "I believe the United States won't give up the idea of this research program. It is a program that will develop over time--it will require, as far as I understand, 10 years. And it seems to me incorrect to set up a condition (at the negotiations) that would be based on giving up such a program."
The U.S. official, asked if Craxi had endorsed "Star Wars," said: "I wouldn't call it an endorsement, but it certainly represents support. Certainly, there was no criticism."
In addition to his meeting with Reagan, Craxi discussed trade and economics with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige and Agriculture Secretary John R. Block. He said he is concerned about the impact on world trade of the U.S. budget deficit and the continuing strength of the dollar.
Craxi is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress today. He will be the first Italian prime minister to do so since 1951.
According to the U.S. official, Craxi said Italian industry hopes to "share in the technological spinoffs" that will result from the "Star Wars" research. He said it is too early to say what that would involve. Thatcher made a similar appeal during her visit to Washington last month, and West Germany has also expressed interest.
The official said Italy will be entitled to benefits from the research program on the same basis as any ally. "The Italians have shown that they are very stalwart allies and they deserve first-class treatment from us," the official said.