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Nervous NATO allies seek US assurance on superpower arms deal. Europeans caution against attempt to `decouple' their defense from US

The United States sought to reassure its West European allies this week that it would not ignore their security concerns in future arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. At a regularly scheduled NATO meeting, US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger pledged that the US would work toward lowering the level of nuclear weapons based in Western Europe while seeking at the same time to achieve parity with the Warsaw Pact in conventional and other nuclear forces.

``If we go down on the nuclear side, then we have got one way or another to balance the conventional,'' he said yesterday at the end of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Scotland. ``You balance the conventional by coming up to the Soviet level or getting them to come down to the point where we have parity.''

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Mr. Weinberger's comments came after nearly a week of criticism by NATO military commanders and several West European politicians over US offers made at the Reykjavik, Iceland, summit earlier this month. The US proposals aimed at removing all intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF) from Europe. Some West European governments, including West Germany and Britain, are concerned that this ``zero option'' proposal would leave Western Europe vulnerable to the Soviet Union's shorter-range nuclear missiles -- some of which are deployed in forward bases in Czechoslovakia and East Germany -- and its superior conventional forces.

At their two-day meeting in Scotland, NATO defense ministers agreed that any accord with the Soviet Union involving the removal of US cruise and Pershing 2 nuclear missiles from Western Europe must include ``appropriate provisions concerning rights and constraints on shorter-range INF missiles,'' according to a communiqu'e.

The NATO secretary-general, Lord Carrington, said Wednesday that if INF forces were reduced, it would be ``logical'' for the US to press the Soviet Union to remove its short-range nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe -- about 300 SS-21s, 22s, and 23s. These were deployed after the US began stationing its medium-range cruise and Pershing 2 missiles in Western Europe.

At their summit meeting in Iceland, President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came close to agreeing to remove all nuclear weapons from Europe. But the deal fell through when Mr. Reagan refused to accede to the Soviet leader's demand that the US curb its research on the antimissile Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as ``star wars.'' Part of that agreement, according to US officials, was that the US would have had the right to match Soviet deployments of shorter-range missiles threatening Western Europe, which now outnumber similar NATO deployments by about four to one.

NATO diplomats said this week that many West European officials were taken by surprise by the speed and extent of progress made at Reykjavik. The US proposals, moreover, had reawakened old fears of a future without a US nuclear ``umbrella.'' Even NATO's military commander -- US Gen. Bernard Rogers -- was moved to argue strongly against the ``zero option'' just before this week's NATO meeting in Scotland.

NATO's Lord Carrington has also cautioned against any attempt to ``decouple'' Western European defense from the US.

``It can plausibly be argued that Western Europe is now rich enough, and potentially strong enough, to provide a sufficient counterweight to Soviet military power on our continent,'' he said in a speech yesterday in Edinburgh. ``But what a go-it-alone strategy would require by way of a sustained transfer of resources to the military sector would have serious implications for the sort of society we are seeking to defend.'' And he added that the Soviet reaction to such a substantial increase in the military capabilities of Western Europe ``might prove destablizing rather than the reverse.''

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