Brian Stewart: War-gaming Iran, the drums are beating

This fall has seen a series of think tanks simulate an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran, Brian Stewart reports. The consensus is that such an attack would be risky at best, but that has not stopped goverments before.

In the headlines, the possibility of war over Iran's nuclear program flares up and then fades, hot one week, cool the next. But behind the scenes the war-gaming by global crisis experts has taken on new urgency.

These strategy-and-tactics simulations, which can be found over much of the think-tank universe these days, are much about war, but certainly no game.

Their objective, using all available data and intelligence, is to analyze in advance what's likely to happen should Iran cross Israel's so-called red line, the point where it is felt to be only a few months away from being able to build a nuclear weapon.

This means often exhausting debates over questions such as: What happens if Israel attacks Iran on its own? Or acts with U.S. air support?

What would be Iran's reaction in either case, and would such an attack end the Iranian program, or merely steel its resolve and delay it a few years?

Then there are the questions like: How badly would the world's economy be shaken? And what are the broader strategic implications for global politics?

You may think these are just navel-gazing exercises. But I always view these flurries of Washington war-gaming seriously because every modern U.S. war has been preceded by just such a mobilization by think tanks and foreign policy magazines setting out the prognoses of former diplomats, conflict resolution advisers and retired military commanders on any looming conflict.

I saw this phenomenon and reported on it in the run up to the first Gulf War 22 years ago, just before the Afghanistan mission after 9/11, and in the nervous months before Iraq in 2003.

Most seem to be held, as now, in the fall. And war often followed soon enough.

Israel's threat

At their best, these war games simulations are launched in the hope that everyone, especially politicians — whether hawk and dove — will be able to think about all the implications of a conflict without being totally dependent on potentially self-serving White House, CIA and Pentagon assessments.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN last month, drawing red lines in the desert. (Associated Press)

At their worst they can be misused to just build the case for or against one particular course of action.

Almost every week now, a new study emerges, driven by a consensus of sorts that time is getting short to deal with Iran.

In Israel, the Netanyahu government, minus some skeptics, believes that the red line will likely be crossed by Iran sometime next summer, possibly sooner. And that may be one reason Israel has moved its parliamentary elections forward, to February to firm up its mandate.

The Obama administration seems to believe there's more time to let sanctions and diplomacy work while a new Mitt Romney government would likely move much closer to the Israeli view.

Israel maintains pressure on Washington to join in an attack by vowing to strike on its own if necessary.

"The debate in Israel is not between war and peace," comments Mark Fitzpatrick, a director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, expressing a widespread belief. "It's between war now and war later, war unilaterally or war with the United States."

So a critical question being asked in these forums is how credible is Israel's threat to act alone?

No guarantee of success

One of Washington's most senior conflict analysts, Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has conducted the most extensive war game to date.

He concludes that Israel may indeed attack Iran's nuclear facilities but cannot guarantee success.

His studies predict the Israeli strike force would have to fly 1,770 kilometres along the Syrian-Turkish border and over part of Iraq to reach the targets, survive Iranian air defences, and then make it all the way back.

Such an effort, he suggests, would require close to 90 aircraft, involving up to 20 per cent of Israel s' top-line F-16 and F-15 jet fighters and its entire air-refuelling capacity.

Also, everything would have to go right, including weather, communications and total secrecy, while Iranian air defences would need to be every bit as weak as Israel believes them to be.

Even with good luck, the attack would be so complex and risky, Cordesman writes, that it would "lack any assurances of a high mission success rate."

Who is bluffing?

Another independent study, conducted by 35 prominent retired foreign policy and military officials, part of a New York-based group known as The Iran Project, concludes much the same.

Entitled "Weighing benefits and costs of military action against Iran," it notes the nuclear sites are too widely dispersed and the main enrichment site at Fordow, near Qom, is dug too deep underground for Israeli airborne and missile attacks to do more than simply delay Iran's program for two years.

A similar conclusion is reached by Foreign Policy magazine after a study of attack options.

It concludes that the Israelis know they can't succeed by air. That's why, according to U.S. military war-gamers, they are believed now planning a daring land attack by super-elite special forces on Fordow.

The imagined raid, known as the "Entebbe Option" in military circles after Israel's remarkable commando rescue of Israeli citizens hijacked in Uganda in 1976, would involve flying 400 of its commandos to the site deep in Iran.

These would hold off Iranian troops long enough to seize or destroy the material. Some believe the idea so risky, as to be little more than a bluff to rattle the Iranians.

Chronic miscalculations

Many war-gamers believe, therefore, that Israel must hold out for a combined assault with its U.S. ally. But even that kind of attack, the studies conclude, would likely only delay Iran's work on nuclear weapons by up to four years.

In the meantime, Iran and its allies would be expected to launch retaliation attacks, as vowed, against Israeli, U.S. and Western targets, possibly even Canadian ones.

That leaves these war-gamers struggling to foresee dozens of potentially strategic consequences of such an attack, from the body blow of an oil shortage on the world economy to new waves of ferment and violence throughout the Middle East.

Perhaps most ominously, another recent simulation of the potential conflict by U.S. and Iranian-born analysts at Washington's Brookings Institute concludes that chronic misunderstanding and miscalculation keeps pushing events towards just such a conflict even when participants "thought they were choosing restrained options."

As the Washington Post's senior diplomatic writer, David Ignatius, puts it: "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 … the desire to look tough compelled actions that neither side wanted."

To me that sounds exactly like the prelude to all those other modern big wars that I mentioned, with the road to battle being paved by faulty assumptions.

It seems that we may just never game war enough, before we make it.