You might even imagine, though reasonable people might certainly disagree on this, that the nonproliferation regime might actually suffer less as a regime under at least some “no deal” scenarios. It is not a given, for instance, that the entire sanctions corpus on Iran would collapse even if it were perceived that it was the United States that had gotten cold feet. Very few of the current sanctions against Iran are actually specifically due to nuclear misbehavior in the first place – most of them having been imposed for anti-money-laundering (AML) reasons tied more to terrorism, human rights problems, or even missile proliferation – and there would thus be no justification for dropping this collection of non-nuclear sanctions even if the nuclear talks go well. (Surely the Obama Administration wouldn’t condone terrorism, human rights abuses, or missile proliferation by dropping non-nuclear sanctions in return for a nuclear deal, would it?)
And even if we were somehow to remain the only country still interested in nonproliferation sanctions against Iran, the United States still remains the world’s largest economy, and a robust set of secondary U.S. sanctions would still force Iran’s would-be trading or financial partners to choose between dealing with us or dealing with the mullahs in Tehran. Such an approach would win us few diplomatic friends in Europe and elsewhere, I’m sure, but, at the end of the day, if given such a choice, there would probably not be too many folks opting for trade with Tehran.
And so Iran might thus indeed still remain to a significant degree isolated, penned in by a fairly strong sanctions regime. If Iran were also confronted over time by a growing suite of American and allied military capabilities designed to reduce the potential military benefits of actually weaponizing – and it were clear that we really would go after Iran militarily if we felt they were getting too close to weaponization – Iran’s defiant nuclear path might seem less attractive to other future would-be proliferators than it would in the wake of a negotiated deal on today’s terms. The meta-message from this sort of “no deal” Iran scenario, in other words, might actually help the nonproliferation regime survive better than would a deal reached pursuant to Lausanne.