Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze announced Wednesday that the United States has agreed to resume long-dormant negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. But U.S. officials later said that Washington has agreed only to resume discussions on the possibility of limiting nuclear tests, not halting them.
"We . . . have fundamentally an agreement from the United States to resume negotiations--resume talks in Geneva--on banning nuclear tests," the Soviet foreign minister told a news conference at the Soviet Embassy here as he concluded two days of talks with British leaders.
Shevardnadze spoke in Russian, and his remarks were translated by a Soviet interpreter.
Moscow has been pressing for a comprehensive nuclear test ban, while the United States has been unenthusiastic. Negotiations on a test ban treaty were conducted between 1975 and 1980 but broke down over the issue of verification.
In Washington, White House spokesman Edward P. Djerejian called the Soviet agreement to have arms control experts from both sides meet for talks on nuclear testing "an encouraging sign" on the arms-control front, one that could enhance prospects for a summit later this year between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
In a prepared statement, the Administration pledged to enter the discussions "without preconditions," but Djerejian immediately ruled out a comprehensive test ban treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union as a possible outcome.
"We are willing to listen to views, including Soviet views," on any aspect of nuclear testing, he said, but the Administration continues to oppose the outright ban on testing that the Soviets have proposed.
Djerejian also announced that U.S. and Soviet experts will open talks soon on Reagan's decision to abandon the second strategic arms limitation treaty. A special session of the U.S.-Soviet Standing Consultative Commission will be convened in Geneva about July 22 to deal with SALT II, which was never ratified by Congress.
The Administration's objections to a comprehensive test ban treaty are based on a conviction that testing is essential as long as the superpowers rely on nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. But a comprehensive test ban "remains a long-term objective," Djerejian said.
"We believe such a ban must be viewed in the context of the time when we do not need to depend on nuclear deterrence to ensure international security and stability," he said, adding that such a time would come only after "deep and verifiable arms reductions" in superpower arsenals.
Asked if the Administration was surprised by Shevardnadze's announcement of Soviet readiness to begin talks, Djerejian said: "Absolutely not. That would really be fallacious, baseless speculation."
Caught Off Guard
However, another White House official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said the Administration was caught off guard by the timing of Shevardnadze's remarks, which preempted a planned noon announcement in Washington.
Mindful of the public-relations impact, officials stressed that the Administration had long sought such a meeting of experts to discuss verification provisions of existing treaties, and that they were pleased the Soviets had finally responded.
The purpose of the talks will be "to enter into discussions and exchange views" on nuclear testing questions, Djerejian said. "This meeting is not for negotiations per se," he added.
The White House statement made clear the Administration's preference that the talks focus not on a test ban treaty but on two more limited pacts signed in the 1970s but never ratified by the Senate. Both the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to abide by them, nonetheless.
2 Treaties Emphasized
The two treaties that the Administration would like to emphasize are the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits underground tests with a yield above 150 kilotons, and the 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, regulating explosions conducted outside weapons test sites that are considered to serve peaceful purposes.
The Reagan Administration determined soon after taking office that the Senate would never ratify these agreements until improvements were made in verification procedures.
Verification is one of Reagan's highest priorities as he attempts to negotiate arms-control restraints and reductions with the Soviet Union.
No firm timetable for the nuclear testing talks has been set, but Djerejian said the Administration has proposed several dates to the Soviets for consideration. The U.S. team will be headed by Robert Barker, a deputy assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Moratorium Due to End
The Soviet Union unilaterally halted nuclear weapons tests last August, but its moratorium--which has been extended several times--is due to expire Aug. 6. The United States has conducted several nuclear tests during the period.
The Reagan Administration has rebuffed Soviet suggestions that it join the ban on testing, saying that such an agreement would be useless unless the prickly subject of verification can be resolved. Administration officials have also charged that the Soviets imposed the moratorium after concluding a lengthy series of tests and have said that the United States would be at a disadvantage if it could not continue testing.
Shevardnadze's trip to Britain, the first by a Soviet foreign minister in a decade, was problem-free.
The two countries agreed to intensify economic and industrial cooperation, to implement measures to prevent naval incidents between the Soviet and British navies and to settle financial and property claims dating back to the czarist era.
More importantly, it signaled an end to strains in Anglo-Soviet relations emanating from the defection of the KGB chief in London last September, which triggered expulsion and counterexpulsions.
Moscow's interest in restoring relations with Britain is apparently based on the Soviets' hope of enlisting the help of Britain, the United States' closest ally, in moving Reagan on key arms control issues before a second Gorbachev-Reagan summit. At their first summit last November in Geneva, the two agreed to meet in the United States this year, but the two sides have deadlocked over a date.
"We understand that Britain and the United States are close allies and that allies have a way of having an impact on each other's positions," Shevardnadze told reporters.
Britain has rejected the role as an intermediary, but Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe departs today for Washington to brief U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz on the Shevardnadze trip to London.
Hints at Shultz Meeting
At his news conference, Shevardnadze said what he termed "serious preparations" for a summit were already under way and hinted that he might meet with Shultz in the near future to lay the groundwork for the summit.
"It will take some time to review these preparations," he said. "That will be done at the foreign minister level."
However, the Soviet foreign minister stressed that before the timing and agenda of a summit could be agreed on, it would have to become clear that the two leaders could achieve concrete results.
"We have an interest in a productive summit," he said. "An empty summit we cannot accept."
Shevardnadze recalled that the Soviet Union has presented new arms control proposals to the United States at Geneva, including a call for a 50% reduction in strategic arms and continuation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty for at least another 15 years.
Moscow also has insisted that research for a space missile defense system, the "Star Wars" program, must remain at the laboratory stage.
The United States has not yet responded in detail to the new Soviet proposals.
Shevardnadze said, "The ball is in the U.S. court now. A great deal will hinge on the answers that the U.S. will give us, . . . including prospects for a Soviet-American summit."
Tyler Marshall reported from London and Eleanor Clift from Washington.