Europe may be breaking away from Reagan's proposed 'zero option'
Europe's NATO members are sending out signals that could significantly expand East-West talks on intermediate-range nuclear weapons. A statement issued last week by European officials is seen by some as the first major official departure from strict adherence to President Reagan's ''zero option.'' (The Reagan proposal would require removal of Soviet SS-20 and other intermediate-range nuclear missiles in return for nondeployment of new American cruise and Pershing II missiles in West Europe.)
The statement reads: ''If the INF (intermediate-range nuclear force) negotiations succeed, the allies would be ready to enlarge the negotiations in a second phase to other arms systems.'' The reference to ''other arms systems'' is generally taken to mean planes and shorter-range nuclear weapons.
European officials cautiously discourage interpretations that the statement hints a readiness to discuss British and French nuclear forces, which the Soviet Union has sought at several times to include alongside NATO forces in arms control negotiations.
(Reuters reports that a top Soviet military official said Monday that Moscow would not give way on its insistence that British and French nuclear arsenals must be taken into account at the Geneva talks. Nikolai Chervov of the Soviet General Staff said the two countries' nuclear forces were regarded by the Kremlin as a ''substantial military factor'' and part of the general Western threat.)
European officials said their statement could pave the way for further negotiations on nuclear armed aircraft such as the American FB-111 fighter-bomber forces based in Europe, other so-called ''forward-based systems, '' and possibly some of the several thousand short-range battlefield nuclear weapons.
In the past the Soviet Union has also displayed keen interest in talks about the forward-based systems, but NATO governments have rebuffed the idea.
The other part of the statement said, ''Even if the INF negotiations resulted in a limited deployment (of cruise and Pershing II missiles), the allies would be ready to pursue the negotiations with a view toward ultimately completely suppressing intermediate-range missiles.''
This would mean official allied support for an ''interim'' solution - or less than the complete elimination of missiles.
Another potential shift is seen in the US proposal that President Reagan meet with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to sign an accord ''banning US and Soviet intermediate-range land-based nuclear weapons from the face of the earth,'' as outlined by Vice-President George Bush in Berlin.
European officials indicate they believe the phrase ''from the face of the earth'' is meant to take ''the Japanese concern'' into consideration. But they indicate such an expansion in scope of the talks could make discussion far more difficult than they already are. (Some say missiles based in Siberia could hit Asian targets.)
Mr. Bush said in Brussels that the wording ''from the face of the earth'' was used ''because it would be wrong to try to move those things over and threaten some other part of the world with them.''
US Secretary of State George Shultz said in Tokyo the phrase means ''not only within the range of European but also Japan and China.''