In September the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel conducted a large-scale wargame/crisis simulation of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yesterday they issued their summary report on the exercise.:
After midnight on November 9, al-Jazeera reports that Israeli airplanes have attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities in three waves of attack. As reports multiply, Israel officially announces it has attacked Iran’s nuclear sites because it had no other choice. According to the scenario, Israel did not coordinate the attack with the United States in advance, and only informed the US once the planes were already en route to the Iranian targets. Initial assessments estimate that the Iranian nuclear program has been set back by nearly three years.
Following the successful attack, Iran decides to react with maximal force, launching missiles from within its borders and urging its proxies – Hizbollah, Hamas, and other radical elements – to attack Israel. Nonetheless, it is careful to avoid attacking American targets. Israel attempts to contain the attacks and works to attain a state of calm as rapidly as possible. The international community is paralyzed, largely because Russia tries to exploit the situation for its own strategic objectives. At the end of the first 48 hours, Iran continues to attack Israel, as do their proxies, albeit to a lesser extent. At this point in the simulation, the crisis does not seem to be close to a resolution.
What is unusual about this Israel-Iran wargame is, as we noted a few days ago, that the simulation was also filmed by the UK Channel 4 current affairs show Dispatches. The resulting 27 minute documentary aired tonight in the UK. (UK viewers that missed it can still watch the video via the Channel 4 website, but those elsewhere are out of luck unless they know how to use a proxy server.)
According to the Channel 4 production team, they were rather taken aback by how easy the Israelis thought it would all be:
And that seemed to sum up the game: ‘Israel’ doing pretty much what it wanted – with little or no consequences. By the end of the proceedings, the picture of almost total ‘Israeli’ victory was clear: ‘Iranian’ retaliation had been limited; ‘Irans’ attempts to get others to enter the conflict on its behalf had largely failed, as had its attempts to get ‘Egypt’ to cancel its peace accord with ‘Israel’.
‘Tehran’ failed to have the sanctions on it removed and also failed to have sanctions passed on ‘Israel’ in the Security Council. A strike against ‘Iran’, it seemed, could be an almost unqualified success.
While it is possible to read the simulation in this way, it seems to me that the INSS wargame actually pointed to some rather complex and important issues related to Iranian retaliation.
- Iran has only a limited capacity to inflict direct damage on Israel, largely through its ballistic missile force (which would have to penetrate Israel’s dual-layer Arrow and Patriot ABM defences.)
- Iran could press its Hizbullah client in Lebanon to attack Israel with shorter-range rockets (of which it has tens of thousands) and other methods, but Hizbullah might be reluctant to do so for fear of sparking a major Israeli military campaign in Lebanon, especially at a time that its Syrian ally is engulfed in civil war. Dragging Lebanon into war at Iran’s behest would also damage Hizbullah’s domestic and regional political standing. The Iranians know this too, so much would depend on whether they wanted to take the risk, and how hard they were prepared to push Hizbullah to act.
- On the Palestinian side, Hamas has a much more distant relationship-of-convenience with Tehran, and would be even less likely to want to risk an unpopular major war on Iran’s behalf. Iran would have rather more influence over the very much smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which might fire off some rockets until Hamas decided to intervene.
- Iran could target Arab Gulf states, US facilities in the Gulf, or oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz. This would risk dragging the US into a shooting war, however—with even greater costs to the Iranians.
- In the longer term the Iranians have a number of other indirect retaliatory options, including attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and stepping up their involvement in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere. However these largely lay outside the 48 hour timeframe of the game
One needs to be very careful about that “48 hours timeframe,” therefore, in assessing the policy implications of the game. The game does not assess whether the Iranians choose to rebuild their nuclear facilities after the attack, much less whether they might decide to develop a much more serious nuclear weapons program than the one they have at present. The game does not assess possible Iranian retaliatory actions in the weeks and months ahead, and the potential for escalatory tit-for-tat. Indeed, the concern that while a war with Iran would be easy to start it would be much harder to end seems to underpin much of the opposition that the Israeli national security establishment has shown to the idea of an attack.
Needless to say, this game has been added to the fourteen others now listed at the Israel vs Iran Wargame Compendium.
h/t Charles Cameron