PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Brookings Institution

Ignatius: Lessons from an Iranian war game

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.

Syria, intervention, and the limits of wargaming

Today’s PAXsims post is something that I’ve been meaning to write about in a general way for a while, but is triggered this week by the confluence of several events. The first was a question raised by Michael Peck on the milgames email list, in which he asked how policy planners might usefully wargame the current civil war in Syria and the political and military complexities of possible external intervention. The second was a presentation by Stephen Downes-Martin at the recent Connections conference which focused, in part, on the ethics of wargame design, coupled with a follow-up point that he made in a comment on the Wargaming Connection blog about knowing the limits of our craft. Third, the Saban Center at Brookings has just released a report on a recent policy game they conducted on Syria, entitled “Unravelling the Syria Mess: A Crisis Simulation of Spillover from the Syrian Civil War.” Finally, I’ve been spending much of the week working on Syria-related research.

My answer to Michael’s question about wargaming Syria was fairly straightforward: while I felt that gaming could offer insight into the military challenges of intervention in Syria, I didn’t think it had much to offer in exploring the possible first, second, and third order political effects of intervention in such a complex and dynamic environment—especially given how many “known and unknown unknowns” lurk in the situation there. On the contrary, if I wanted to illuminate the Syria question I would prefer to do it through a workshop or well-run BOGSAT  (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) discussion, with a team of participants and moderators who knew how to move the discussion along in interesting and thought-provoking ways.

The advantages of this are two-fold, I think. First, a wargame usually (although not always) embeds a single model of a situation, and unless there are opportunities for multiple plays (a rarity in policy games) there is little  scope to explore a variety of possible relationships between key elements of the scenario. A workshop or BOGSAT discussion, on the other hand, allows you to unpack critical assumptions, debate them, consider alternatives, and talk through the policy implications of all that. This is especially important in a case where there is genuine disagreement about the causal processes and relationships at work. Such a discussion can also be very agile, allowing you to rapidly explore new directions when interesting ideas are put forward. That can be much more difficult to do in a wargame, especially the heavily-scripted three-move seminar games of the sort that often predominate in policy settings.

The report of the Syria wargame undertaken at Brookings, unfortunately, rather illustrates my point. The report itself is rather badly done: it isn’t at all clear how large the teams were, how they were formed, how much experience and expertise they had, what range of policy options they considered (or were allowed to considered), or how the white cell and game adjudication operated. The write-up itself is also extraordinarily vague in recounting who actually did what, when, and with what effects. Even the initial scenario is poorly described, as are any injects that might have been introduced during the game. Only three actors were represented by active players in the crisis game: the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian government wasn’t represented, nor were the many Syrian opposition actors. With no Syrian actors represented, it isn’t clear that any creative countermoves were taken by Damascus to deter or offset the creeping  intervention that took place in the game, nor that the locals could act to manipulate foreign engagement to their own local advantage. Many of the games findings seem to be self-evident, and hardly needed multiple players to give up a day to identify. The game report notes, for example, that Turkey is important in what happens in Syria—a fact that ought to be evident to anyone who has read the news, or who can even read a map.

Even more serious than this, however, is the extent to which many of the “findings” of the game seem to be as much presuppositions of the game model as they are actual findings. For example, the report notes:

Nevertheless, despite Turkey’s significance, American power still went a long way. For instance, the Saudi team evinced interest in the battles for the arms‐ supply routes through Lebanon which the scenario depicted as escalating—and in the deteriorating situation in Lebanon more generally. But the Saudi team again found itself relatively unable to explore options there without support from the U.S. team. The Saudi team also considered working with Jordan as an alternative (or supplement) to Turkey, but the other teams (principally the U.S. team) showed little interest in pursuing the feasibility of that option.

The paragraph, and the game, presumes that there are “battles for the arms supply routes in Lebanon.” It isn’t clear what exactly that means, nor does it sound especially realistic to me. The report also suggests the game was configured in such a way that the Saudis couldn’t influence events in Lebanon without US assistance—which I also think is fundamentally wrong.

To take another example:

…the Saudi team found that Saudi Arabia had only a modest impact on events in Syria itself, and made little headway with either the American or Turkish teams until the Americans and Turks had decided on their own—and for reasons having nothing to do with Saudi efforts—to intervene in Syria. At that point, Saudi/Arab help became extremely useful, but even then it was not decisive: the American and Turkish teams had made up their minds to do so based on their own interests, and would have intervened (and felt they could have intervened) with or without Arab support, although the Arab support was certainly welcome.

Potentially, Saudi and Gulf influence on events in Syria is (I would argue) much greater than the report, and the crisis game model, seem to suggest—especially regarding financial and material support to the Syrian opposition.

Overall, one gets the sense that the game was rigged to tilt the process towards certain policy conclusions, either because of the policy preferences of the game sponsors and designers or because of the particular worldview that it was built on.

In his comments at Wargaming Connection, Stephen warns of the dangers of “trying to sell war gaming as a solution when other solutions might be better.”  He’s right, of course. It is often the case that a wargame or policy game is not the best way of exploring an issue; indeed, I would argue that it is very often not the best way of exploring complex political issues.

On the other hand, if (say) you’re a think tank in Washington and you want to (say) influence policy on Syria, running a game and putting “crisis simulation” in the title of your report is one way of making it seem somehow more weighty and special. It is, after all a crisis—you know, important and urgent—and a simulation—which, of course, must mean that it bears some relationship to reality. Which means it’s got to be correct, right?

 

Ayatollah for a Day (more Israel/Iran simulation)

I missed it when it first came out (largely because I was locked away in a SCIF that day discussing things Middle Eastern), but Karim Sajadpour had a piece in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month discussing his role as a (simulated) Ayatollah Khamenei during the Brookings Institution’s 2009 crisis game examining a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities:

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

To probe these questions, the Brookings Institution in late 2009 assembled two dozen former senior U.S. government officials and Middle East specialists for a daylong simulation of the political and military consequences that would result from an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

The simulation was conducted as a three-move game, with Israeli, U.S., and Iranian teams, 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 Israeli decision-makers; the Iranian team was composed of a half-dozen specialists, including people who had either lived in Tehran or served as U.S. officials with responsibility for Iran.

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

The simulation was premised on a surprise Israeli military strike — absent U.S. knowledge or consent — on Iran’s nuclear facilities, motivated by the breakdown of nuclear negotiations, the ineffectiveness of sanctions, and newfound intelligence of secret Iranian weapons activity. In other words, pretty close to what we have before us now.

We’ve covered other reports on the game in the past, and had some doubts as to how realistic the military scenario was. At the risk of quibbling, Sadjadpour’s account only further contributes to those doubts when it notes that the Iranian side in the wargame “unleashed Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to fire rockets at Israeli population centers.” While PIJ is certainly subject to very heavy Iranian influence, and Hizbullah might fire rockets in such as case (although perhaps not, since the political cost would be very high), Iran has no substantial operational influence over Hamas at all. Someone in the room ought to have known that.

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