In his column at the Washington Post yesterday, David Ignatius reported on a recent Iran-US crisis game held at the Brookings Institution:
Perhaps it was the “fog of simulation.” But the scariest aspect of a U.S.-Iran war game staged this week was the way each side miscalculated the other’s responses — and moved toward war even as the players thought they were choosing restrained options.
The Iran exercise was organized by Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. It included former top U.S. officials as Washington policymakers, and prominent Iranian American experts playing Tehran’s hand. I was allowed to observe, on the condition that I wouldn’t name the participants.
The bottom line: The game showed how easy it was for each side to misread the other’s signals. And these players were separated by a mere corridor in a Washington think tank, rather than half a world away.
Misjudgment was the essence of this game: Each side thought it was choosing limited options, but their moves were interpreted as crossing red lines. Attacks proved more deadly than expected; signals were not understood; attempts to open channels of communication were ignored; the desire to look tough compelled actions that produced results neither side wanted.
Let’s walk through the simulation to see how the teams stumbled up the ladder of escalation. The game was set in July 2013, with some broad assumptions: It was assumed that President Obama had been reelected, the P5+1 negotiations remained deadlocked and Israel hadn’t launched a unilateral attack.
The game controllers added some spicy details: Assassinations of Iranian scientists were continuing; and the United States, Israel and Britain were developing a new cyberweapon (imaginary code name: National Pastime) to disrupt power to Iran’s nuclear and military facilities. Even so, the Iranian supreme leader thought that America was a paper tiger, telling aides: “The Americans are tired of the fight, and they are led by a weak man with no stomach for the struggle.”
Meanwhile, Iran was pushing ahead with its nuclear program; it had a rough design for a weapon and, in three to four months, would have enough highly enriched uranium to make two bombs.
The action started on July 6 with an Iranian terror operation: A bomb destroyed a tourist hotel in Aruba, killing 137 people, many of them Americans, including a vacationing U.S. nuclear scientist. The damage at the hotel was far greater than the Iranians had expected….
As Ignatius describes it, the crisis then escalated as the US bombed a Revolutionary Guards facility and unleashed a cyber-attack against Iran, and the Iranians responded with limited mining of the Straits of Hormuz—in response to which, in turn, the US decided to launch a major military offensive against both Iranian coastal defences and its nuclear facilities.
Of course, one can offer the usual quibbles (which, as always, need to be read with some caution, since we only have a single newspaper account to go by).
- The game designers appear to have seeded a substantial escalatory dynamic into the simulation from the outset both by envisaging an Iranian attack against a tourist hotel that causes mass civilian casualties (I can’t think of a terror attack that ever caused ten times more casualties than anticipated by the planners, but I stand to be corrected), and by apparently declaring that Iran had begun to produce HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium—that is, enriched to over 20% U235 and possibly suitable for use in a nuclear weapon) At present, Iran has no HEU whatsoever, having kept it enrichment within the 20% LEU (Low-Enriched Uranium) threshold) where it cannot be used in a weapon. Pretty much everyone recognizes that productions of weapon’s-grade HEU by Iran would be a major provocation, including the Iranians (which is why they have kept enrichments levels below this to date).
- Iran deliberately bombing US tourists seems a little out of character too, but partly that depends on how one reads the alleged 2011 assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington (I’m among those who remain unconvinced there was a serious, authorized Iranian effort to conduct an attack.)
- Iran’s decision to mine the Straits of Hormuz also seems rather surprising to me too, given that almost all of its oil exports use that route.
However, as Ignatius’ account suggests, the game does nicely showcase one strength of such a simulation: namely the ways in which it can highlight how easily signals can be misread in a crisis, even if the sender believes that they are being carefully calibrated.
If any readers participated in the game, feel free to add additional information (or corrections) in the comments below.