If all parties are interested in reviving the deal, why didn't they all just re-agree to exactly the same terms that were already negotiated back in 2015? Which side is demanding more than what they got previously?

Edit: The Biden administration's disapproval of Iran's supplying military drones to Russia to use in Ukraine is one possible explanation, but as that's a relatively recent development it can't be the whole story.


4 Answers 4


According to media reports, there are a few major sticking points.

First, the US has done things that it considers unrelated to the deal and is unwilling to reverse. In particular, it designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, and the Biden administration has refused to budge on that.

Second, Iran is in a different position than when the 2015 deal was negotiated. Not only has it enriched beyond the 2015 limits (to be clear, it did that in response to the US pullout), it has also gained experience in uranium enrichment. Making matters even harder, the IAEA has been investigating traces of uranium at undeclared sites, which Iran has been arguing should be dropped but which the US and Europe are arguing should continue. Iran has responded by disconnecting monitoring equipment.

Third, Iran doesn’t trust the US to stick to a renewed deal. After Trump abruptly pulled out, Iran has been pushing for compensation and/or to make a deal that the US can’t just pull out of when a new president feels like it. Iran also has a new president who is far more skeptical of the West, in part because of the original deal’s collapse (which made its president at the time look much worse for agreeing to it in the first place).

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    Something I might add to the second point of being in a different position is the Israeli raid on a secret collection of Iranian nuclear documents in 2018: nytimes.com/2018/07/15/us/politics/… Israel has only shared a few of the documents publicly, but has shared much of them with the US intelligence community.
    – Azendale
    Nov 23, 2022 at 15:40
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    The site those documents were stolen from was set up to specifically have no ties to former nuclear programs and was kept secret from IAEA inspectors. Israel claims some of the documents (which are from before the JCPOA) show plans to split nuclear research into covert (weapons related) and overt, and to hide covert research programs. My understanding is the documents also hint at Iran being closer to a nuclear weapon than we thought when the JCPOA was signed.
    – Azendale
    Nov 23, 2022 at 15:53
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    It's also very difficult to imagine why Iran would want to comply with the west's agreement even if Iran was publicly on-board, so to speak. Iran has made zero attempt to hide it's lust for nuclear weapons for decades... it's not going to just stop because some US president thinks they should.
    – SnakeDoc
    Nov 23, 2022 at 19:49
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    "to make a deal that the US can’t just pull out of when a new president feels like it." That was the initial complaint with Congress in 2015. They at least won the legal right to review the deal and vote approve or disapprove, and though voting multiple times, they could not get enough votes to approve it and not enough disapprove votes to undo an Obama veto. That left the deal at the whim of the next president.
    – user2578
    Nov 23, 2022 at 23:00
  • @user2578: true, but at least some US presidents, Trump included, claimed they can unilaterally pull the US out any treaty, ratified by Congress or not. The issue isn't even settled domestically in the US, between branches of gov't politics.stackexchange.com/a/32836/18373 So no 3rd country has any kind of guarantee in that regard, wrt. to single-handed cancellation by future US presidents. Mar 22, 2023 at 23:25

To see what has changed, we should look at the motivation behind the deal.

The main reason why Iran would want to acquire nuclear weapons is to act as deterrence against an attack by the US. A genuine commitment from Iran to not do this can only be expected if there is a certain measure of trust in the US. Trump's denouncement of the deal probably destroyed much of what little trust there was in the first place.

On the other side, the deal was struck while Rouhani, who is considered a reformist, was the president. Part of his agenda was to improve relations with "the West", and thereby improve the economic situation in Iran. Compared to his predecessor Ahmadinejad and his successor Raisi, both hardliners, he is clearly preferrable as an Iranian leader from a Western perspective. Part of the motivation of the West to agree to the deal was to give Rouhani a political win. Rouhani got reelected in 2017 (with the deal in place), but the collapse of the deal damaged his prestige.

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    @Arno The statement "....Iran would want to acquire nuclear weapons is...." is always declined by Iran authorities, and the fact that Western media insist on it is not enough to accept it.
    – Naghi
    Nov 22, 2022 at 23:58
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    @Alish "Would want", not "wants".
    – Arno
    Nov 23, 2022 at 0:13
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    Forget the western media. You can accept it just by the fact that it takes a hundred times more money to build the infrastructure to enrich uranium to bomb-ready level than to peaceful uses level, and an impoverished, troubled, sanctioned country like Iran is spending exactly like that. They reached the capacity for peaceful uses fifteen years ago, no need to keep wasting money, unless you're searching for something else.
    – Rekesoft
    Nov 23, 2022 at 15:54
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    Independent of the media, you also have to explain away the trove of documents, stolen by Israeli espionage and released to the US government, detailing nuclear research that the Iranians specifically noted could only be used for weapons and thus must be kept secret.
    – Azendale
    Nov 23, 2022 at 16:09
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    @Zeus Nukes are not particularly useful for enforcing your will on others, as it is very difficult to convincingly threaten that you'd use them offensively.
    – Arno
    Nov 24, 2022 at 23:45

The details are different now, so the same deal isn't really possible. Iran has had additional time to try and develop more advanced nuclear weapons, additional checks may be warranted. Iran also hasn't really stopped being antagonistic to western ideals, so there is little incentive for the US to act in a favorable manner. Others may have realized the deal was poor for them and too much was given in attempt to have a deal. Currently, the biggest hurdle is the massive civil unrest in Iran that both takes attention away from any potential deal and may cause the US to demand granting Iranians further freedoms that the leaders really don't want to do.


According to USIP, Iran made some demands that IAEA drop [all] additional investigations, which didn't sit well with the West:

The primary challenge was on the political side as of early 2023. The world’s six major powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – were very close to reaching an agreement with Iran in August 2022. But the talks stalled after Iranian negotiators made unrealistic demands beyond the scope of the JCPOA. They stipulated that Iran would agree to a deal only if the U.N. nuclear watchdog closed an investigation into traces of uranium found at three undeclared sites within a specified period. They also demanded that the IAEA never again investigate Iran’s past nuclear activities.

FWTW, the IAEA leadership wasn't too willing to go along.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told CNN [...] that the agency would “absolutely not” close its probes, noting that “so far Iran has not given us the technically credible explanations we need to explain origin of many traces of uranium, the presence of equipment at places.”

OTOH the same source mentions that Iran officially had dropped some demands in August, namely that IRGC related entities be unsanctioned. But another source mentions that (despite that) Iran hardliners were betting that a hard winter in Europe coupled with lack of Russian gas would make Europe more amenable to Iran's heightened demands.

Marandi, who is in the inner circle of Iran’s hardliners, argued last year that the war in Ukraine and the cut in Russian energy supplies would leave the Europeans in a winter freeze and Tehran would get strong leverage on the nuclear issue.

But that didn't really happen. And probably based on the same ideas (that the West will fold), they supplied drones to Russia at around the same time, although Iran still claims that had happened before the war. And now the US [consequently] says it has been "played" and that despite Iran's renewed affirmation in the deal, it's not really interested.

“What’s the point?” [US Special Envoy for Iran Robert] Malley said about the talks. “Why should we focus on it if Iran comes back with demands that are unacceptable? At this point we’re not going to focus on the nuclear deal because we can’t sort of keep going back and then being played.”

Vice-versa, while the Biden administration might not have mentioned publicly [AFAICT], some [Republican] hardliners in the US were also publicly betting (at least in the winter) that protests in Iran would [instead] weaken the regime.

The E3 essentially acknowledged the impasse in March

“As we have stressed many times, there are currently no negotiations on the JCPOA,” [German Foreign Ministry spokesman] Christian Wagner told reporters in Berlin.

And that was despite the IAEA chief's visit to Teheran, which did yield a minor agreement on more inspections at some sites, but otherwise seems to have deferred most other outstanding issues.

The mutual seizures of oil tankers in April this year (which had some precedents in 2019 etc.) probably didn't help either, even if there's been no official tit-for-tat claimed this time, AFAIK.

Additionally, some commentators have suggested that Iran is even less interested in making concessions on a nuclear deal now that its relations with Saudi Arabia have improved a bit on a mutual basis (enabled by China).

I.e. mutual trust is at or close to another nadir. And almost everyone involved seems to have played some kind of waiting game since last summer, hoping to negotiate from a better position.

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