We acknowledge, of course, that containing a nuclear Iran would be costly and risky. The United States would need to be strong, resolute and even fearsome in demonstrating to Iran the costs of aggression and assuring U.S. allies that staying the course with Washington represents a prudent strategy. Yet attacking Iran means rallying ordinary Iranians to a regime they dislike and many despise, and it risks a wider war in the region. And it would alienate key international actors, such as Russia, whose support would be necessary to ensure that an effective sanctions policy could work over time. And an attack would do all this without even providing a reasonable and plausible answer to the ultimate question Americans want answered before the United States goes to war: How does this end? Stealthy air strikes and massive earth-penetrating bombs are only tools, not answers. The United States cannot responsibly attack Iran and leave it at that, simply hoping for the best. A firm and resolute containment may be costly and risky, but it is a lot better than that. It’s probably best not to start down a road that has no end in sight.
Elbridge Colby is a defense analyst who previously served in a number of U.S. Government positions, including as an expert advisor to the Congressional Strategic Posture, for which he prepared a study on the question of deterring a nuclear-armed Iran. Austin Long is an assistant professor at Columbia University and author of a detailed assessment of the merits and implications of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.