Ayatollah for a Day

I war-gamed an Israeli strike on Iran — and it gotugly.


TheInternational Atomic Energy Agency’s new reporton Iran’s nuclear program asserts that Tehran “has carried out … activitiesthat are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” and thatthe agency sees “strong indicators of possible weapon development.”In other words, the IAEA has finally reached the same conclusions that Israelfirst reached in 1995. So should we really be worried about an Israeli strikenow?

Historically,there has been an inverse correlation between Israeli saber rattling andmilitary action, but senior Obama administration officials consistently confirmin private meetings that they take “very seriously” the prospectof an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Thinkof it like this: In one way — and one way only — the potential of an Israelimilitary strike on Iran is akin to a Herman Cain presidency. Its likelihood isslim, but the potential consequences are too dramatic to ignore.

Althoughthe precise strategy Israel would employ to carry out such an operation isdebatable, its objective — to avert a nuclear-armed Tehran — is crystalclear. What’s less clear is how Tehran would react and with what aim. Would theIranian regime be strengthened or weakened internally? Would it respond withfury or restraint?

Toprobe these questions, the Brookings Institution in late 2009 assembled twodozen former senior U.S. government officials and Middle East specialists for adaylong simulation of the political andmilitary consequences that wouldresult from an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

Thesimulation was conducted as a three-move game, with Israeli, U.S., and Iranianteams, each representing their government’s top national security officials.The members of the U.S. team had all served in senior positions in the U.S.government; the Israeli team was composed of a half-dozen experts on Israel,including former senior U.S. officials with close ties to senior Israelidecision-makers; the Iranian team was composed of a half-dozen specialists,including people who had either lived in Tehran or served as U.S. officialswith responsibility for Iran.

I hadthe unenviable task of trying to channel Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The simulationwas premised on a surprise Israeli military strike — absent U.S. knowledge orconsent — on Iran’s nuclear facilities, motivated by the breakdown of nuclearnegotiations, the ineffectiveness of sanctions, and newfound intelligence ofsecret Iranian weapons activity. In other words, pretty close to what we havebefore us now.

Arguably,the strongest argument against an attack on Iran is a question of simplemathematics. According to Israeli estimates, a strike would, at best, set backTehran’s nuclear clock by just two to three years — but it would likelyresuscitate the fortunes of a deeply unpopular, ideologically bankrupt Iranianregime, prolonging its shelf life by another decade or generation. As one Iranian democracyactivist once told me, Israel and the United States should “focus less onthe gun and more on the bandit trying to obtain the gun.” Bombing Iran, hesaid, would strengthen the bandit, not weaken it — and only increase his desire to get the gun.

Iran’snuclear sites are purposely built close to population centers, but in thesimulation, the Israeli strike managed to cause only a small number of civiliancasualties. Nonetheless, one of my immediate reactions was to order Iranianstate television to show graphic images of the “hundreds of innocentmartyrs” — focusing on the women and children — in order to inciteoutrage against Israel and attempt to convert Iranian nationalism intosolidarity with the regime.

Tofurther that goal, we then invited the symbolic leadership of the opposition –Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi (both of whom are now under housearrest), as well as former President Mohammad Khatami — onto state televisionto furiously condemn Israel and pledge allegiance to the government. Instead ofwidening Iran’s deep internal fractures — both between political elites andbetween the people and the regime — the Israeli military strike helped repairthem.

Iasked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario.He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “10 times worse” –in terms of eliciting popular anger — than a U.S. strike and agreed that itwould likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with thegovernment, strengthening the state’s capacity to respond.

Andrespond we did. I went into the exercise believing that the Iranian regime’sresponse to an Israeli military strike — despite many predictions otherwise –would be relatively subdued, given the regime’s fears of inviting massivereprisals. The opposite turned out to be true. Once our nuclear sites wereeffectively destroyed, we calculated that we had no choice but to escalate andretaliate in order to save face and project power to our own population andneighbors, deter future attacks, and inflict a heavy political cost on Israel.

Perhapsimplicitly, the experience of Israel’s September 2007 bombing of a Syriannuclear reactor was instructive. Aside from a feeble official complaint to theUnited Nations about Israel’s “breach of Syrian airspace,” there wasvirtually no reaction from Damascus. As a result, the Israeli attack was metwith little international or even Arab condemnation.

We needed to respond in a way that would further enflame the regional securityenvironment, negatively impact the global economy, and make reverberations feltthroughout the world. So we played dirty.

One ofour first salvos was to launch missiles at oil installations in Saudi Arabia’sEastern Province, as well as stir unrest among Saudi Shiites against theirgovernment. Our pretext was that Israel had used Saudi airspace to attack us,though we later found out it did so without Saudi permission. Given Iran’sless-than-accurate missile technology, most missiles missed their mark, butsome struck home and we succeeded in spiking oil prices enough so thatAmericans and Europeans filling their cars with gasoline might be irritated byIsrael’s actions.

We alsofired missiles at Israeli military and nuclear targets and unleashed Hezbollah,Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to fire rockets at Israeli population centers. Althoughfew of these missiles reached their targets, the goal was create an atmosphereof terror among Israeli society so its government would think twice aboutfuture attacks.

We didn’tlimit our reaction to just the Middle East. Via proxy, we hit European civilianand military outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq, confident that if past isprecedent, Europe would take the high road and not retaliate. We also activatedterrorist cells in Europe — bombing public transportation and killing severalcivilians — in the belief that European citizens and governments would likelycome down hard on Israel for destabilizing the region.

But, appreciating the logic of power, westopped just short of provoking the United States. Before the simulation, I’doften heard it said that it wouldn’t make much difference whether Israelactually got a green light from the United States to strike Iran, for Tehranwould never believe otherwise.

Thisassessment wasn’t borne out in the simulation. The U.S. secretary of state sentus a private note telling us that the Americans did not approve the Israelistrike, and vowed to restrain Israel from attacking further — if we alsoexercised restraint. They tried on multiple occasions to meet with us or speakby phone, but we refused. While Washington believed that its overtures wouldhave a calming effect on us, we interpreted them to mean that we could strikeback hard against Israel — not to mention European targets — without riskingU.S. retaliation, at least not immediately.

Giventhat the simulation was intended to gauge the immediate consequences of anIsraeli strike on Iran — not its long-term impact — the final results wereinconclusive. The intent wasn’t to prove either side correct, but to try tounderstand the decision-making calculus of each side.

Notunlike wars themselves, different actors drew different lessons. Those, likemyself, who thought that the costs of an Israeli attack significantlyoutweighed the benefits, felt the results of the simulation validated theirposition. In the span of just a few days, our simulation had the Middle Eastaflame. But those who, prior to the exercise, believed that attacking Iran’snuclear facilities was a necessary risk weren’t convinced otherwise.

Yet thereality is that no one — not even the Iranians — can say with confidence howthey will choose to react once the fog of war sets in. And as for long-termconsequences, it’s way too murky to say anything but this: It will be ugly.

One ofthe great American strategic thinkers of the 20th century, former U.S.Ambassador to the USSR George Kennan, spent more than half a centuryalternatively thinking about how to avert a nuclear war with the Soviet Unionand what a nuclear war with the Soviet Union might look like.  

Shortly before he passed away in 2005 at age 101, hereflected on his half-century of experience. “Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy,especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certainthings on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end youfound yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had neverthought of before,” he said.”War has a momentum of its own, and it carries you away from allthoughtful intentions when you get into it.”

“Butalso, there is a very, very basic consideration involved here, and that is thatwhenever you have a possibility of going in two ways, either for peace or forwar, for peaceful methods of for military methods, in the present age there isa strong prejudice for the peaceful ones. War seldom ever leads to goodresults.”


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