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Baker and Shevardnadze Test the Waters in Vienna. Opening of conventional arms reduction talks provides chance to discuss issues such as Iran, Central America, human rights. US-SOVIET RELATIONS

WHEN James Baker III and Eduard Shevardnadze meet today in Vienna, their get-acquainted talks will be more of a preliminary listing of subjects than an in-depth give-and-take. But the United States secretary of state and Soviet foreign minister will still lay down some markers and discuss areas such as Central America, Iran, arms control, and human rights, US officials say.

The two men are taking advantage of the opening of conventional arms reduction talks in Vienna to size each other up and discuss the agenda for the first full-scale US-Soviet ministerial meeting under the Bush administration. That meeting is expected in late April or early May in Moscow.

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Today's talks will be limited, in part, because the Bush administration is still reviewing US policies on arms reduction negotiations and US-Soviet ties. The Soviets seem to be getting a little nervous about the length of the review process, US Soviet-watchers say. They would like Mr. Baker to discuss a date for the next round of strategic arms reduction talks, for example. But Baker is not ready to commit to a date, officials say.

``President Bush wanted a serious policy review,'' a ranking US official says. ``This is not just being cautious. The nature of our relationship with the Soviets is in the process of very fundamental change. So it's worth stepping back to reflect at the beginning of the administration.''

In Vienna, American officials expect the Soviets will want to hear firsthand Baker's views of the relationship and perestroika (restructuring). Baker will stress that the US hopes perestroika will succeed, but that it will be up to the Soviets to make the hard choices needed for success. Moscow should expect support, though not a bailout, from the West, officials say.

The US secretary of state will also explain his idea for adding a new category to the regular bilateral talks - US-Soviet cooperation in transnational areas, such as counter-terrorism, environmental protection, and fighting drug trafficking.

Central America and Iran will be high on the US agenda, officials say. Baker has been working hard on a new Bush administration approach to Central America. He will make the case that the Soviets should slash their military aid to Nicaragua.

Officials say Baker will point out that the US does not intend to seek military aid for the contras, and that the regional peace efforts are progressing, thus making continued Soviet arms deliveries increasingly unhelpful.

Baker will also express irritation at what US officials characterize as ``Soviet opportunism'' in dealing with Iran. (A look at this and other Soviet diplomatic initiatives, story Page 8.) They say Moscow has not criticized Iranian death threats against Salman Rushdie, author of ``The Satanic Verses.'' Instead, Moscow has sought to ingratiate itself to Iran in various ways. ``After all this talking to us about `new thinking' in foreign policy,'' a senior official says, ``this is outrageous.''

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Mr. Shevardnadze has promised to brief Baker on his recent tour through the Middle East, including Iran. US officials say they are not bothered by Shevardnadze's non-Iran Middle East maneuvers. In fact, they welcome the signs that Moscow is building bridges to Israel and showing a willingness to press its friends to make realistic negotiations possible.

``We've been telling the Soviets for years that they have to play with all sides if they want to have influence in the Middle East'' and be a player in the peace effort, the ranking official says.

``Our attitude is one of challenging the Soviets to see what kind of a role they want to play,'' he says. ``The sense here is that we would welcome a constructive Soviet role. There will be no ideological exclusions. But if they play tactical games or try to drive wedges, that is a different question.''

So far, a senior US official adds, the Soviets have not used their influence ``where it is really painful for them.''

But they have shifted philosophically, he says, ``from a policy of favoring a `no war/no peace' situation to seeing that peace in the Middle East may be in their interest.''

The Soviets are expected to press for their version of a political settlement in Afghanistan and again suggest a mutual cutoff of arms supplies. But US officials say this is just ``damage limitation'' by Moscow.

The Soviets are only talking about arms limits, they say, after ``arming Kabul to the teeth.'' ``We're not trying to stoke the flames,'' a US specialist says. ``But we're not going to cut off aid if it leads to a perpetuation of the Soviet-backed regime.''

The US side will express hope for superpower cooperation on resolving other regional disputes, including those in Cambodia and the Horn of Africa.

On human rights, Baker intends to emphasize that US support for a 1991 international human rights conference in Moscow remains conditional. ``We want to see the momentum continue,'' the ranking official says. ``There has been a slowdown since January on resolving individual [refusednik] cases, and we need to keep the pressure on,'' the senior official says.

``Even more important for the long run,'' he adds, ``is what happens in the reform of the criminal code and other laws.'' New Soviet press and immigration laws as well as other reforms are due this spring. More broadly, the new US foreign policy team is enthusiastic about the possibilities for progress with Moscow. ``There are great opportunities out there if we can just go out and seize them,'' a well-placed policymaker says.

Some of the best opportunities for influencing the momentous change being attempted by the Soviets is in the realm of ideas and attitudes, the senior official says. The Soviets are looking for new approaches to a degree unseen since the Russian Revolution, he says. Sharply increased travel to the West is already having a tremendous impact. ``All of this could have a more profound effect in the long run than our arms control positions.''

Nevertheless, US officials see the potential for major advances on arms control, too. In the area of conventional arms reduction, talks begin this week, for example, they say there is the real potential over time to go beyond the modest positions that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is now putting on the table.

``We are going to explore the possibilities for eventually having much more radical changes on both sides, and moving to a much more defensive force structure,'' one well-placed official says. It won't be easy to negotiate the more radical proposals in Washington, among the NATO partners or with the Warsaw Pact, officials say.

However, they say the potential for significant arms reductions make it worth the effort.

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