Friday, September 21, 2012

Post #347 - Eyes Wide Shut

The following came to me with my morning coffee, courtesy of our friends at the Washington Post  (9/20/12).  It was written by David Ignatius, one of my favorite sources of common sense on the subject of Iran.

Lessons from an Iranian war game

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.

The U.S. team recommended strong retaliatory moves to signal Iran that it had crossed an “unacceptable threshold.” The United States bombed a Revolutionary Guards camp in eastern Iran; launched a cyberattack that disrupted power at 40 Iranian security facilities; and warned Iranian operatives in 38 countries that they were known and vulnerable. U.S. military leaders in the game complained that these calibrated moves were half-measures.

Bombing the Iranians’ homeland rocked their team. It crossed a red line, in a way the U.S. side hadn’t anticipated. The Tehran players spurned a secret message from Obama, delivered through Russia, warning of “dire consequences” if the nuclear program wasn’t stopped; the imaginary Iranian defense minister called it a “bluff.” The Iranians wanted to respond forcefully but not so much so that they would trigger an attack on their nuclear facilities.

Then the Iranian team made what proved a devastating mistake. After rejecting the most aggressive options (such as attacking Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain), they chose limited actions, described as the “random mining” of the Strait of Hormuz and “harassment” of U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians also dispersed their stockpile of uranium, but only half, to signal they were still willing to negotiate. But the United States missed the message.

“They’ve crossed our red line,” responded the imaginary U.S. national security adviser — expressing the group’s mistaken view that the Iranians had decided to close the strait and attack U.S. vessels. As tensions increased, oil prices headed toward $200 a barrel.

U.S. military options were between harsh and harsher: (a) reopen the strait by force and deliver an ultimatum that Iran stop its nuclear program within 24 hours; or (b) hit Iran’s nuclear facilities simultaneously with reopening the strait. Military logic seemed to require the strongest move. The U.S. team ultimately voted, 5 to 3, for an attack across Iran to disable the nuclear program and destroy coastal defenses.

The unsolved puzzle for the U.S. side was how to stop the conflict, once it started. The Iranians, for their part, had decided to bleed the United States in a protracted struggle. The lesson of the exercise, concluded Pollack, is that “small miscalculations are magnified very quickly.”


This account may -- quite understandably -- seem a bit scary to you. Let me tell you why I think it ought to seem scarier still:

One, in the real world, there tends to be an awful lot more interference by external factors. These may include: competing crises (just because things are going off the rails with Iran that doesn't mean that everything is uncharacteristically quiet in Afghanistan or Libya or Syria or that there aren't worrying developments elsewhere that come completely out of left field); political pressures can be intensely confounding (suppose the crisis intensified a week before the November elections? Suppose it reached a climax during a new president's first 100 days?). Such factors may have been built into the game, but it's not likely they were as bizarro as the real world often is.

Two, one might wonder who the gamers were in this case. While Ignatios is sworn to silence on that score, we can certainly surmise who some of them might have been. Ken Pollack is a knowledgeable, well-connected guy, who would likely tap some great resources within or just outside the Beltway. On the "Iran side" of the corridor, he might have installed people such as Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of two first-rate books on U.S.-Iran relations. Perhaps he'd invite Dr. Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, or Prof. Ahmad Iravani, who graduated in Islamic Studies in Qom and who has been an advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace. Or Ali Banuazizi from Boston College, who has been a member of the Council of Foreign Relations' Task Force on Public Diplomacy.

On the "United States" side, Pollack might have tapped Amb. John Limbert, a former hostage in Tehran and a teacher at the Naval Academy, author of Negotiating with Iran. Others may have included George R. Perkovich, an expert on nuclear strategy who has advised Vice President Biden on foreign policy during his Senate years. A military expert, such as ret. Adm. William O. Fallon (who headed the U.S. Central Command during the last decade) would be a must. Some former administration insiders and a scientist or two, and you've got it.

Why are these fantasy football team rosters scary? Because such a group would have a good deal more expertise, experience and wisdom than the folks who actually would have to make all the life-and-death, multi-billion-dollar decisions, if it came right down to it. Remember, then, that whoever did participate, they were unable to keep us out of war during the make-believe process.

The ranks of our "experts" actually serving currently in key positions in the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council include virtually no one with on-the-ground Iran experience. Add to that the fact that most of our intelligence is either old or third-hand. We haven't had diplomatic relations with Iran (hence, very limited "listening post" opportunities) for over thirty years. If it's a comfort (I doubt that it will be), even when we did have an embassy and a CIA station there in 1978-79, they had no inkling that the Islamic Revolution was about to blow.

If the war-game fantasy seems like a nightmare, don't wake up -- it only gets worse.

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