Critics of President Reagan's nuclear weapons policies claim that recent administration moves represent a step backwards for arms control. They say the United States and the Soviet Union may indeed be nearing an accord on limiting intermediate-range nuclear missiles, but that this is a secondary issue. On the more important question of strategic long-distance weapons, progress seems farther away then ever, these critics claim.
``We are in a downward spiral of decontrol of nuclear weapons,'' says Gerard Smith, chief of the US SALT I negotiating team.
Mr. Smith, at a press conference called by the Arms Control Association, said that in particular President Reagan's Monday speech at the UN contained fresh insults for the 1972 ABM Treaty, which limits construction of defenses against ballistic missiles.
In the speech Mr. Reagan said he was prepared to sign a new agreement that would limit ballistic defense work to research and development for the next five years. After 1991, if either superpower decided to deploy such defenses, it would be obliged to offer a plan for sharing its benefits with the other side. If sharing-the-wealth details could not be ironed out in two years, unilateral deployment would be legal, under the President's plan.
``Apparently President Reagan is proposing a substitute ABM Treaty,'' says Smith. ``Or are we going to have two at the same time? He used deliberately ambiguous language.''
When the administration first made strategic defenses a priority in 1983, Reagan was quoted as saying that he would share the fruits of the Stategic Defense Initiative's technology with the Soviets if it came down to deployment, and depicted a world in which both superpowers depended on defensive, instead of offensive, arms. By now using the more vague word ``benefits'' when discussing sharing, and by saying that defenses could be erected unilaterally, Reagan is making clear the US would forge ahead in this area over Soviet opposition, says Smith.
In his UN speech, Reagan made only passing reference to the issue of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), a virtual omission that critics at the Arms Control Association meeting took as a sign that negotiations on the subject may be getting serious.
``INF is the one area where significant progress might be made at a summit,'' says Spurgeon Keeny, Arms Control Association president.