Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Newsweek’s Iran Wargame

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the United Nations General Assembly with a cartoon bomb to highlight the dangers of Iranian nuclear enrichment. A few days later, Israeli intelligence officials noted that some Iranian Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) had been used to make nuclear fuel, making it unsuitable for weaponization. And in the media and think-tank world, the increasingly popular pastime of Israel-Iran-US crisis gaming this past week had its latest entry, in the form of Newsweek magazine’s Iran War Game.

In point of fact, the Newsweek wargame isn’t a wargame at all, since it involves only one side and no moves or countermoves by the participants. Instead, it was more of a policy options exercise, in which participants were assigned roles—in this case, as members of the National Security Council Principal’s Committee (NSC-PC). They were then presented with a scenario, and asked to assess risks, interests, and possible policy options:

As part of the war game, Newsweek convened seven former political and military officials and staged a mock meeting of the “Principals Committee”—the team the president calls on for recommendations about matters of the highest importance. Assuming the roles of Obama’s key advisers, including his chief of staff, his national security adviser, secretaries of state and defense, directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the panel was roughly analogous to the group Obama consulted before ordering the operation against Osama bin Laden last year.

Former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, now at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Mideast Policy, prepared detailed briefing papers on the Israeli attack, during which Israeli strikes knocked out some facilities but left other key parts operational. The documents indicated that Israel had set back the Iranian nuclear program with its attack but hadn’t managed to destroy it. They also outlined international responses to the operations: denunciations across Europe, rocket attacks on Israel by Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah group, and small-scale street protests around the Muslim world.

The group then heard from their simulated CIA Director, played by former CIA Deputy Director Richard Kerr:

Principals Committee meetings often start with assessments by intelligence directors. In ours, Kerr, as the CIA chief, predicted worse things to come: Iran would likely step up its attacks on Israel, and, viewing Washington as implicitly involved, could try indirectly to strike at American targets as well. The easiest ones might involve U.S. troops in western Afghanistan or in Iraq. In both cases Iran would likely operate through proxies, keeping its fingerprints off the operations. Kerr, who in real life helped manage the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan in 1990, said the administration should also brace for Iranian cyberattacks, another way for Tehran to lash out at Washington from behind a wall of anonymity. “They will be very cautious about a direct confrontation with the United States, but there are a number of things … they might be able to do,” he said.

In what could easily cause shock waves to the world economy, Kerr also warned about Iranian attacks on ships in the Persian Gulf. (Some 20 percent of oil traded worldwide flows from the Gulf out through the Straits of Hormuz.) “I don’t think they’ll try to close the Gulf, but they can make the Gulf a difficult place to operate in, and raise the cost for everybody,” he said.

[Former CIA Deputy Director John] McLaughlin, in the role of director of National Intelligence, said street protests in the Muslim world could precipitate the kind of violence that killed four Americans in Libya last month, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Not everyone agreed. Kerr estimated that the Gulf countries would be happy to see Tehran cowed and that Sunni Muslims would not come out for Shia Iran. But McLaughlin pointed out that the ouster of autocrats across the region in the past two years meant the Muslim street was less predictable.

I tilt towards Kerr on this one, and in any case don’t think the “Arab” or “Muslim” street is a very useful concept in any case. However, this could simply be the article’s rendering of a more complex conversation. In any case, as the Newsweek report notes, the real challenge in the view of participants was how to develop a response that deescalated tensions, and showed support for Israel’s security without endorsing Israel’s unilateral action:

The assessments helped frame a main quandary of the discussion: how to scale back the tension without signaling to Iran that the U.S. was weak or hesitant, a message that might tempt Iran to actually escalate the violence; and how to put distance between the U.S. and Israel, which explicitly defied Obama in launching the operation, without emboldening Iran and, again, potentially raising the flames.

Acting characteristically assertive—but rather unlike the real Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—Bing West suggested that the US pile on by attacking Iranian assets even before Iran had taken any actions against the United States.

West proposed a 10-day military campaign to neutralize much of Iran’s offensive capability. Others ruled out such an operation for the time being but agreed that an Iranian attack on an American ship would trigger a broad military response against Iran’s Navy. “We have multiple ways of taking on their assets,” said Rudy deLeon, in the role of defense secretary. [John] Podesta, as Obama’s chief of staff, asked lightheartedly if the uranium–enrichment plant at Fordow was part of the Iranian Navy. In other words, he wanted to know if the U.S. would see an Iranian provocation as an opportunity to destroy those parts of Iran’s nuclear program still standing after the Israeli attack. The question raised chuckles, but Podesta predicted later in the discussion that an escalation would likely result in American strikes on Iran’s remaining nuclear facilities.

So, while the team would urge Obama to focus on de-escalation, it was also acknowledging that much depended on Iran’s actions after the Israeli operation. An Iranian attack on American targets would inevitably lead the U.S. to war.

The group wrestled with how best to deal with Israel, with participants’ views apparently running the gamut from full backing (including military resupply) to a much more cautious response. Although Podesta had urged participants to ignore political considerations and the pending US Presidential election, it seemed to be implicitly accepted that US criticism of or pressure on Israel could come at an undesirable domestic political price for the Obama team.

Considerable concern was also expressed that the Israeli strike might have harmed US security interests by facilitating or accelerating Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons:

Several participants voiced concern that the Israeli assault would, perversely, undermine Washington’s ability to keep Iran from getting the bomb. They estimated that Tehran would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) after the attack and expel international observers from their facilities—something Iranian leaders might have been looking for an excuse to do. “I think there’s a chance this is a gift to the Iranians,” McLaughlin said, describing the Israeli operation as a possible “get-out-of-the-NPT-free card” for Iran. Without the observers, the U.S. would have a harder time determining what Iran was doing at Fordow, Natanz, and the other sites, and, specifically, at what level it was enriching uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons. On top of that, given international anger at Israel over the attack, the broad weave of international sanctions against Iran that Washington has pulled together over the past year would likely fray. “We have to avoid the rapid unraveling of sanctions,” Podesta said.

In the end, several participants offered odds of 50% or higher that the US would end up getting dragged into the conflict, resulting in some level of US military action against Iran.

…the upshot of the simulation is a sobering one: Washington could quickly lose control of events after an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. If Iran attacks Americans or goes after Israel too aggressively, even an administration wishing to avoid another war in the Middle East might find itself in the middle of one.

I’m a little surprised there wasn’t more discussion of the economic consequences of all this, given the potential (flagged by Kerr at the outset) for the conflict to spike up oil prices, thereby choking off an already fragile global economic recovery and possibly pushing the Eurozone into an even greater financial crisis. This may have been a function, however, of the predominance of former spooks, diplomats, and military folks in the room, and the absence of anyone playing the Secretary of the Treasury (normally a member of the NSC-PC). Still, all-in-all it seems to have been a thoughtful discussion by a group of eminently-qualified participants that highlights the many policy dilemmas that would face the United States should Israel attack Iran

For a summary of all publicly-reported Iran nuclear crisis games, see the ever-growing Israel vs Iran wargame compendium at Wargaming Connection.

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