Secretary of State George P. Shultz said Tuesday that the United States and the Soviet Union "made a little headway" toward resolving the strategic missile defense issue during his two-day visit to Moscow.
Shultz said "activities" that would be permitted under any new agreement on space defenses were discussed with the Soviets.
He immediately discounted the progress this represented as being almost imperceptible. But it may be a potentially significant development, because it apparently opens up U.S. willingness to talk to the Soviets about how the contentious U.S. anti-missile research program can be limited.
Until now, Pentagon objections had barred this approach for fear that it would constrain President Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, the space-based missile defense system commonly known as "Star Wars."
After briefing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies here on his Moscow talks, Shultz also told the press conference that his forthcoming Middle East peace mission has been greeted with "intense skepticism" but that he will pursue whatever small chance for success exists. "You can't be too afraid of failing," he said.
To Fly to Israel
Shultz returned to Washington later Tuesday but will remain there for only about 24 hours before flying to Israel to begin a five-day effort to get the peace process under way between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors.
Shultz also repeated his conviction that the Soviet Union intends to withdraw from Afghanistan. He cited public statements by the Kremlin as well as "private statements to me" to justify his belief that a settlement in the Afghan conflict is close.
En route to Brussels on Shultz's aircraft, a senior U.S. official told reporters that intelligence reports reinforce Soviet promises to withdraw from Afghanistan. These include indications of defensive deployment of Soviet troops and withdrawal of Soviet dependents from the country.
Another senior U.S. official indicated that the United States does not favor Pakistan's demands for an interim government in Kabul as a prerequisite for signing the Geneva accords on a Soviet withdrawal.
"We've been trying to get the Soviets out for years," the official said, and it would be wrong to make the Soviets now "stick around" until the Afghans work out a political settlement. "We don't want to miss the bus," he added.
Pakistan to Get U.S. View
Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost, who accompanied Shultz to Moscow, will convey this U.S. attitude to the Pakistanis later this week.
On the subject of arms control, the joint U.S.-Soviet statement ending Shultz's trip to Moscow on Monday said that the negotiators of both sides were directed to make a crash effort to develop a verification scheme to monitor a proposed agreement cutting strategic offensive weapons by 50%.
Despite continued progress on that front, the two sides remain far apart on the missile defense issue, which the Soviets want resolved before they will sign any offensive weapon agreement.
The Reagan Administration insists that it is entitled to develop and test space-based anti-missile weapons under the SDI program, but the Soviets want to limit such work to research on the ground.
At the Washington summit meeting in December, the two sides largely papered over their differences in their final communique, which allows each side to conduct "research, development and testing, as required" under the terms of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, "as signed in 1972."
The compromise appeared to be unraveling in the following weeks but was reaffirmed at the Moscow meeting this week, Shultz said Monday. But he went further here Tuesday when he said, "We progressed a little, maybe imperceptibly" on the space defense issue in Moscow by discussing what "activities" would be permitted during a period of 7 to 10 years in which both sides pledge not to withdraw from the ABM treaty.
Shultz did not elaborate, but a U.S. official traveling with him said later that the U.S. delegation had been authorized to discuss "the types of development and testing" which the United States intended to conduct during the period under the terms of the compromise summit language.