Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

INSS Iran simulation

The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University has now posted its own account of its November Iran nuclear simulation:

US-Iran Negotiations: Simulation Exercise at INSS, INSS Insight No. 154, December 29, 2009

Asculai, Ephraim, Landau, Emily B., and Malz-Ginzburg, Tamar

Despite the tendency to denote any simulation exercise on security issues a “war game,” the recent simulation designed and held at INSS did not focus on the option of a military attack. Rather, it developed the scenario of a bilateral US-Iranian negotiation over Iran’s nuclear program. With Barack Obama – in line with his self-imposed end of the year deadline – currently poised to assess the progress made with his diplomatic outreach to Iran, the importance of understanding the implications of a possible direct bilateral dynamic comes into sharper focus.

The purpose of this exercise was to estimate the trends of a possible US-Iranian negotiation dynamic in order to evaluate the best response policy for Israel. Taking part were current and former senior personnel from the Israeli defense establishment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the academic world, including experts from INSS. The three main teams that took part in the exercise simulated the US, Iran, and Israel. The American and Iranian teams were further divided into upfront negotiations teams and behind-the-scenes “decision makers.” Joining them was a large group of additional players representing Europe, Russia, China, the GCC, Egypt, and the IAEA.

The opening scenario created the conditions for the onset of a bilateral US-Iranian negotiation sparked by the nuclear crisis, but which would include a broader set of issues that went beyond the nuclear issue per se.

As the exercise developed, however, it became clear that the participants limited the declared general scope of the game, and became fixated on the situation as it was in early November. As such, the proposed Vienna Agreement on the supply of fuel to the Tehran Research Reactor took center stage in discussions. This persisted in spite of attempts by game coordinators to expand the talks to the more general issues, including the suspension of enrichment in Iran.

At a later stage in the exercise, an explosion was reported at the Arak heavy water production plant in Iran, and although whether this was an operational accident or deliberate sabotage was undetermined, the Iranian team turned the incident to its advantage by claiming Israeli aggression against Iran.

Although the event was a simulation exercise only, some important insights into the real world emerged.

Regarding Iran, its main strength is that it has a clearly defined ultimate aim: obtaining nuclear weapons capability. This aim guides its tactics in confronting the international community. In contrast, while in general terms the US as well as Israel wants to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state, it lacks well-defined aims and consolidated strategies for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. What we observed is that this situation played to Iran’s advantage, allowing it to determine to a large degree the pace and even the content of the talks. It used tactics of playing for time and flooding the US with vast amounts of irrelevant information to delay substantive discussion. Iran was also minded to form international coalitions and acquire allies, and demonstrated much flexibility to changing situations.

The findings are, in many ways, not dissimilar to those reported from the Harvard simulation, in that the Iranians generally felt free to puruse their nuclear agenda, with US pressure limited and unable to bring about a fundamental change in regime policy, and Israel’s unilateral military options strictly limited. The simulation left open (or, perhaps, the participants all assumed) the actual goals of Iran’s nuclear program: is it to develop an operational weapon, the capacity to produce a weapon on short notice, the “breakout” capacity to develop a weapon in future free from external constraints, or something more limited? In this case, with the simulation very much focused on the current context, it made not have made much difference, however, since most or all of these options require that Iran maintain significant nuclear enrichment capacity.

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