David Ignatius
Opinion writer November 27, 2013

Now that the Obama administration has won its breakthrough first-step nuclear deal with Iran, officials are planning strategy for the decisive second round that, over the next six months, will seek a broader and tougher comprehensive agreement.

This “end state” negotiation, as officials describe it, promises to be more difficult because the United States and its negotiating partners will seek to dismantle parts of the Iranian program, rather than simply freeze them. Another complication is that negotiators will be fending off even more brickbats from hard-liners in Israel, Congress and Tehran.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

If the interim deal was reached largely in secret, through a back channel provided by Oman, this one will have to be negotiated in the diplomatic equivalent of a circus ring, with hoots and catcalls from bystanders.

As administration strategists seek a comprehensive deal, they have several priorities. All will be harder to negotiate than was the limited six-month freeze on the Iranian program agreed to last weekend. Given the arduous bargaining ahead, the United States will need the leverage of the sanctions still in place after the release of $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets — and the threat of more sanctions if negotiations break down.

The negotiators’ agenda:

●First, the United States wants no heavy-water reactor at Arak, rather than just a halt in supplies for it. Because this reactor would generate plutonium that could be reprocessed for a bomb, it is seen as inherently destabilizing and dangerous and unnecessary for a civilian program.

● Second, the United States will press Iran to dismantle a substantial number of its roughly 19,000 centrifuges, perhaps more than half. Washington has already conceded that, in a comprehensive deal, Iran will have a “right” to civilian nuclear effort with “a mutually defined [uranium] enrichment program.” But negotiators will seek a tight cap on the number of centrifuges, at a level that’s consistent with a limited civilian program.

● Third, the United States will urge closure of Iran’s enrichment facility at Fordow, dug into a hillside near Qom, arguing that this fortified location isn’t consistent with the civilian effort that Iran insists is its only goal. The Iranians may seek to convert Fordow to some other use, which would present tricky monitoring issues.

● Fourth, the United States will aggressively pursue Iran’s commitment in the interim deal to the inspection of possible weaponization and military activities at Parchin and other bases. As inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency gain access, they may discover other issues for negotiation.

● Finally, the United States will have to craft with its negotiating partners a structure for the next round of talks. A “joint commission” of experts will supervise compliance with the six-month interim agreement. Meanwhile, the comprehensive negotiations will begin with the so-called P5+1 group, which includes the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, plus Germany. But it remains to be seen whether the United States will also have a parallel structure for secret bilateral talks with the Iranians, as in the interim round. Secrecy will be harder this time, because of protests from nations that were excluded.

Officials don’t see any sign yet that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wants to expand negotiations beyond the nuclear file to include regional issues, such as the sectarian fighting in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. U.S. analysts believe this regional agenda is controlled not by Rouhani but by Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Whether the Revolutionary Guard genuinely accepts Iran’s turn toward negotiation and is ready to cease its destabilizing covert action is crucial but hard to assess.

As Washington pushes ahead to engagement with Tehran, U.S. officials understand they must reassure their Sunni Arab allies that they haven’t tilted toward Shiite, Persian Iran. The U.S. message, not well communicated so far, is that it seeks an equilibrium in the Sunni-Shiite schism. Regaining this balance means aggressive outreach, especially to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As part of this effort, President Obama spoke Wednesday with Saudi King Abdullah, and more such contacts are planned.

A wild card in these negotiations is Israel. Obama has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take a breather from his clamorous criticism and send to Washington a team that can explore with U.S. officials a sound end-state strategy. Perhaps the United States and Israel need a back channel, outside the bombastic pressure campaign by Israeli advocates.

Getting to “yes” with Iran was difficult enough last weekend, but the truly hard part of these negotiations is just beginning.

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