All options are on the table. How many times have we heard this? The administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush directed such declarations to Saddam Hussein. North Korea is no stranger to this formulation. Then there’s Iran. Here’s what President Barack Obama had to say at the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference on March 4, 2012:

I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

President Obama then went on to say,

Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who would virtually outsource U.S. policy toward Iran to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, heartily agrees. So, all options are on the table – except one.

I understand why President Obama has resorted to this strange formulation. The need of the hour is to dissuade the Iranian authorities from upping their percentage and quantity of enriched uranium, and to dissuade Prime Minister Netanyahu from initiating a bombing campaign whose success, at best, would be partial and of limited duration. Consequently, the choice of bombing Iran would, in effect, be a choice of repeatedly bombing Iran, with each successive wave of sorties enjoying less support and further enraging large swaths of the Islamic world, with a few notable exceptions.

Why, then, are all options on the table? Because in the worst-case scenario, Iran’s Mullahs and Revolutionary Guards – unlike Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong who, in effect, signed far more death warrants than the entire population of the State of Israel – would actually use nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, thereby abruptly ending their own centuries-long civilization, as well.

U.S. leaders set aside the option of preventive war and preemptive strikes in their dealings with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Instead, they played a long game, accepting nuclear deterrence until the former collapsed and the latter’s revolutionary fervor waned. Eventually, the fires now consuming Iran will also burn themselves out. Nuclear deterrence is, however, an extremely hard concept for Israelis to accept, for understandable reasons.

Air strikes by Israel or the United States could lead to a wide variety of bad outcomes: more economic shocks; more hardship tours for U.S. forces that have been in theaters of war for over a decade; the departure of IAEA inspectors from Iran, resulting in our inability to monitor the status of a reconstituted and accelerated nuclear program; heavy strains on the Nonproliferation Treaty; greatly diminished U.S. influence and further destabilization in the Islamic world; the targeting of U.S. citizens and significant Israeli casualties from retaliatory actions by Tehran and its proxies. Some scenarios are more manageable than others, but all are likely to grow in severity over time with repeated bombing campaigns.

The option of bombing Iran has more utility than its realization, especially when the leverage derived from this threat loses credibility from oft-repeated warnings. Nonetheless, absent a diplomatic settlement, those who have put the option of bombing Iran on the table cannot take it off. While bombing is optional, a policy of containment is mandatory. Containment of Iran’s influence, mischief-making, diplomatic space, and power projection is and will be U.S. policy regardless of the state of Iran’s nuclear program. Stringent economic sanctions will remain in this mix as long as Tehran and Washington remain at odds over the nuclear issue. All of these containment measures will become even more important – and harder to maintain – if the bombs fall.

Rob Litwak, the Director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, has completed a trilogy of books on the dilemmas of dealing with outlier states. His newest, Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain, or Engage Regimes (Johns Hopkins Press, 2012), offers the following sensible conclusions:

The case for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program rests on an assessment of the theocratic regime as underterrable and apocalyptic. But that depiction of Iran as an irrational state runs contrary to National intelligence Estimates that have characterized the clerical regime’s decision-making as being ‘guided by a cost-benefit approach.’…

The crux of the problem with the outliers [is that] the very process of integration, which the Obama administration depicts as a tangible reward for coming into compliance with international norms, is perceived by Tehran… as a threat to regime survival.

Rob recommends “a retooled, updated version of Kennan’s strategy of containment that would decouple the nuclear issue from the question of regime change and rely on internal forces as the agent of societal change.”