Results Of Simulated Israeli Strike On Iran

In the past, Israel has targeted nuclear reactors in Syria and Iraq. Some wonder what would happen if Israel attacked Iran's nuclear program. The Saban Center for Middle East Policy created a day-long simulation of the diplomatic and military fallout. Kenneth Pollack studied the results.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

As suspicions of Iran's nuclear ambitions mount, The New York Times reports today that Iran may be planning to build two more nuclear enrichment sites inside hollowed-out mountains to be as safe as possible from attack. The U.S. continues to pursue stronger international sanctions against Iran, but that may not work. And Israel may not wait, given the history. Israel bombed nuclear facilities in both Syria and Iraq in previous years. What might happen if Israel attacks nuclear sites in Iran?

This past December, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution created a war game to simulate the diplomatic and military fallout that might follow. One of those scenarios was published yesterday in The Times.

If you read the story, if you can imagine what might happen, what outcome makes the risks reasonable, how Iran might respond, we want to hear from you. Our phone number is 800-989-8255; email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kenneth Pollack is director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. He studied the results, reactions and what-ifs of the war game and joins us from his home in Maryland. And Ken, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. KENNETH POLLACK (Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings): Thanks so much, Neal. Always good to be back.

CONAN: And how do you make such a thing realistic?

Mr. POLLACK: Well, it's actually a really good way to start because you need to understand that these things can be somewhat realistic but they are an abstraction from reality. And no one should assume that what we were able to do was to somehow play out an actual war between Iran and the United States.

But what we did, and the way that you try to do this is we brought together a group of people, some of whom had extensive experience in the U.S. government, people who had been in principals meetings, had been senior officials of the U.S. government, and we basically put together a mock American NSC. And then we did the same thing for the Israeli government using Americans who were very close to Israel, who had extensive experience with Israel, most of whom had also served in the U.S. government, so they also had an experience of government-making, and set up an Israeli war cabinet, and then we did the best that we could.

And I have to admit that that is obviously the weakest link in trying to set up an Iranian mock supreme National Security Council. But we used some of the finest Iran experts in the country and also, again, some people whod worked within the U.S. government so that we had a balance of as good as we're going to get in terms of people who understood Iran and people whod actually been in the policymaking circles. And you basically put them in a horrible situation and you ask them how theyre going to react. And...

CONAN: So they're all in different rooms and somebody comes in and hands the, you know, the American government a piece of paper that says, Israel has just launched an attack on Iran.

Mr. POLLACK: Exactly. With the Israelis, of course, we let them know beforehand that they would be doing this...

CONAN: Yes, of course.

Mr. POLLACK: ...and then, what do you do next? And with the Americans, we said to them - the Iranians, we said, this is what just happened, how do you respond?

CONAN: And the scenario, at least the one that was published in The New York Times yesterday envisioned a situation where Israel decided not to ask the United States for permission and used a refueling site in the desert in Saudi Arabia, without Saudi Arabia's - permission, and then went ahead and launched a series of strikes and then sat back to see what would happen.

Mr. POLLACK: Well, effectively. Yeah. In truth, the Israeli team actually did come to the Americans right after the strike. And the way that they presented it to the Americans was, look, we've just accomplished something remarkable. And by the way, we allowed the Israelis to have the most successful strike that I think it's possible to imagine Israel having at the far, far end of the spectrum of what's likely. And we did that very purposely because we wanted to test what would happen if the Israelis got their fondest wishes and really did do a lot of damage to the Iranian program, as much as you'd expect Israel with its much reduced resources could do to Iran.

And they came in to the Americans and said, look, we've just done something very positive for both of us in terms of hitting these Iranian strikes. We need to take advantage of it. And the American position was a very different one. Rather than seeing it as an opportunity, the way that the Israelis did, the American team saw it as a huge problem.

For them, what the Israelis had done was to open Pandora's Box. And while the Israelis wanted kind of a joint front to take advantage of what they saw as an opportunity, the Americans wanted the Israelis to sit very much on the sidelines while the U.S. tried to close Pandora's Box before too many of the furies escape.

CONAN: And furies escaped?

Mr. POLLACK: Yes. It's one of the things that we found was that there was quite a bit of escalation all around. The Iranians took this as an opportunity. They also were terribly angry at the Israelis. They wanted to lash out. And they also saw it as an opportunity to both weaken Israel and to demonstrate that the U.S. was a paper tiger.

And one of the most interesting...

CONAN: Was there a sense also that given the nature of the rhetoric of the past few years about what would happen if they felt required to follow through on their threats?

Mr. POLLACK: I'm sorry. The Israeli threat or the Iranian threat?

CONAN: The Iranian threats, if attacked, we will respond?

Mr. POLLACK: Oh, absolutely. The Iranians, too, were trying to reinforce their own deterrent. They wanted the Israelis and every other country out there to understand that you couldn't just attack Iran with impunity. But to a certain extent, you know, what the Iranians were trying to do was to figure out how far they could go and not cause the United States to come back at them with the full fury of the American conventional arsenal. And it was kind of interesting, as the game went on, what they were able to do before the U.S. really geared up to come after them.

CONAN: And they, as a lot of people have anticipated, used their allies in Hamas and Hezbollah to launch attacks against Israel.

Mr. POLLACK: That's right, Neal. And I think this is one of the most important things that we identified in the game as being a potential issue for the Israelis, which is that what really was problematic for Israel was not so much the direct response by Iran. Iran did lob some ballistic missiles at Israel and they also tried to mount terrorist operations as best they could. The truth is, is that the Israelis were ready to deal with that. And the amount of damage they suffered was kind of minimal.

What really was problematic for the Israelis were the rockets coming out of Lebanon from Hezbollah and secondarily out of Gaza from Hamas. And those put Israel in tremendous problems, caused enormous economic problems for Israel. And by the end of the game, which was eight days later in simulated time, the Israelis were about to launch a massive operation into Lebanon, just air and special forces to try to shut down those rockets, but the Israelis had already recognized that was probably not going to succeed. And they were gearing up to do anything bigger operation, including mobilizing their ground forces for that.

And I think that's one of the things, as I said, that the game really highlighted was the potential for Israel to have to do major operations in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip if they decide to go after Iran.

CONAN: And there were operations elsewhere because the Iranians in this scenario did not necessarily believe that the Saudis were not active participants here.

Mr. POLLACK: That's right. The Iran team decided that the Saudis had been in collusion with the Israelis and they decided to respond against Saudi Arabia. And what's more, as the game went on, the Iran team increasingly gravitated toward Saudi Arabia not just for that reason, but also because of the potential to disrupt the oil market. And they felt that this was a very good way of demonstrating the limits of American power and kind of presenting the United States with a variety of Hobson's choices.

And so as a result, they went after several Saudi oil export facilities and, by the end of the game, had actually started to try to mine the Strait of Hormuz. And that was what finally pushed the United States to say, all right, we've got to take care of the Iranians. And the truth is, had the game going on for even one move, even a few days longer, I think the chances are that the Iranians would have gotten clobbered by the Americans. But as it turned out, nobody was in a particularly advantageous position.

CONAN: We're talking with Ken Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, who analyzed a war game simulation about an Israeli military strike against Iran. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

We do have a caller on the line. Let's go to Jeff(ph). Jeff with us from Sierra Vista in Arizona.

JEFF (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to ask about a plausible scenario of possibily Israeli attacking Iran. You hear all this talk about Israeli attacking Iran's nuclear infrastructure, thinking inside the box. Now, if you were to think outside the box and not directly attacking a nuclear infrastructure, but maybe their ability to export oil which feeds their nuclear infrastructure, say, in the Straits of Hormuz, where that would be much more efficient in time because that's more of a centralized thing, as opposed to a decentralized infrastructure as their nuclear production facilities. And I'll take your answer offline. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Jeff, thanks very much for the call.

That's not the situation you posited, but a possible answer, Ken Pollack, might be...

Mr. POLLACK: Yeah. I actually think Jeff's question is a really interesting one. It was one we were watching to see if it came up in the game. Because effectively, what happened was the Israelis launched their air assets against the nuclear sites and basically shot their bolt there. Afterwards, the Iranians really felt like the Israelis couldn't do much more damage to them.

And the truth is, that the Israelis still had submarine assets in the Persian Gulf, which could have done a lot of damage to Iran's oil export facilities exactly as Jeff is positing. What was interesting was the Israelis never did it in large measure because the United States told them to sit on the sidelines, to let the U.S. take care of Iran, and because, I think, the Israelis were very concerned that any kind of blow to the Iranian oil infrastructure would jack up the price of oil, which would have turned international opinion even further against them.

CONAN: And did the - in the game, did the price of oil shoot up?

Mr. POLLACK: It did. It absolutely did. I think that - you know, I'll be honest with you, I can't remember exactly, but my memory is that oil was somewhere between 130 and $140 a barrel when we finished.

CONAN: It has been there before.

Mr. POLLACK: Yes, it has. So that was - but I think the likelihood was had the game gone on - and again, we only did eight days of simulated time - my guess is that that number probably would've gotten higher before it got lower.

CONAN: Let's get Omar(ph) on the line. Omar with us from Ann Arbor.

OMAR (Caller): Yes. I have a question. What is the role of Pakistan in this whole simulation? Have you included Pakistan in it?

CONAN: And that, Pakistan because why?

OMAR: Because last time, a few years back, when the - before the election of Obama, there was a rhetoric of attacking Iran because of the nuclear ambitions. And the people in Pakistan, they protested that, you know, if America attacks Iran, they will fight with Iran. So I'm just wondering.

CONAN: Did Pakistan's role come in, Ken Pollack?

Mr. POLLACK: No. We actually chose not to bring the Pakistanis in. Our assumption was, especially in the amount of time that we were looking at, that it was unlikely that any other government would get actively involved. The Gulf states, the other Arab states were extremely unhappy and were screaming at the United States to take action. But we did not see anything that would have created an opportunity for any of these other countries to get actively involved. Again, the game was over within eight days of simulated time. And most of these countries really would not have probably even taken the decision to get involved in that amount of time.

CONAN: Omar, thanks for the call. Good question. We're talking with Ken Pollack of the Saban Center and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as you look at the question, you said the Gulf states were very upset and demanding the United States take action to calm the situation or to restrain Iran?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLACK: Yeah. It's a great question, Neal. And the answer was all of the above. At one level, we felt that the Gulf states were probably quite happy that someone had taken down the Iranian nuclear program, something that they found very alarming. On the other hand, a number of the Gulf states were also very concerned about the potential for a wider war in the Middle East, something that was starting to happen, again, as you saw, the Israelis getting attacked from Lebanon into a lesser extent from Gaza and them gearing up for operations into both and then the United States moving into the Gulf to secure the sea lanes against the Iranian mining.

So on the one hand, there was, you know, some degree of positive sentiment about the reduction of Iran's nuclear capability but a growing realization that this perhaps had unleashed a wider war that they really didn't want.

CONAN: Let's go next to, this is Red(ph). Red with us from Cleveland.

RED (Caller): Yeah. Hi. My question was, during the game simulation, was Syria involved at all or was included as a part of the Iranian part? And if so, what was the outcome of the Syrian involvement?

CONAN: Yeah. Syria, also an ally of Iran and of course, through Syria, a supplier to Hezbollah. Ken Pollack?

Mr. POLLACK: Yeah. It's a great question, Red. And again, one of the more interesting things that kind of emerged from the game was how passive Syria seemed to be throughout the entre thing. The Iranians did not feel that they could actively involve Syria. The other states did not feel that they could actively involve Syria. And so Syria basically sat there and watched. They certainly didn't take any action to restrain Hezbollah. But neither were they taking any active actions themselves. And again, I think that at least in the timeframe that we're looking at, I think that was probably likely a realistic outcome, that the Syrians would for a while watch to see what happened before picking which side they get it on.

CONAN: And a fundamental lesson it seems, just reading the piece in the Times was that people's analysis of the outcome of this scenario depended on where you sat. From the Israeli point of view, if it postponed Iran's nuclear ambitions for a number of years, that's good. From the Americans' point of view, this was not so good.

Mr. POLLACK: Yeah. I think that is an interesting outcome. But I will say, Neal, that I'm - to some extent, I think that that may be a product of our own input. I think that actually reflects well on how we chose people for these teams, because we were looking for an American NSC that we felt would reflect our current NSC, we were looking for Israeli participants to reflect the current Israeli government. That's certainly how the Israeli government feels about it. And I'll say that not every member of the American team, not every member of the Israeli team shared those sentiments.

But I think to some extent, it was - they went in with the assumption that, you know, on the Israeli side, that boy, if we can just set the Iranian program back by even a year or two, that's worth pretty much any other damage that we can sustain. And so, while someone else might look at it and say, wow, you guys, you know, you got set back in some important ways, their response was, it was worth it to us. But again, I think that that may be a function of, you know, people's own sentiments going in to the game.

CONAN: And quickly, Mike(ph), if you can, we'll get one last call in.

MIKE (Caller): I'm curious as to what your guest has to say about the accuracy historically of the simulations. Where I'm coming from, I'm a submarine Navy veteran, and all of the war games and casualty training and everything that I participated in, when the situations actually happened, in reality, the results were quite different. So how do you - have you done simulations about past -events in the past where they came to fruition and how did your simulation, you know, compare to what actually happened?

CONAN: I think if he could predict the future, he'd be appearing on "Lost" more than TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. POLLACK: Yeah. It's a great question, though, Mike. And I'll say I have participated and run any number of simulations, some of which have been terrifying in terms of predicting the future. We actually ran one again at the Saban Center at Brookings on the invasion of Iraq, right before the invasion. And we identified at least a half a dozen of the problems that we actually encountered there. Unfortunately, nobody did anything about them. But you're also right, Mike, that again, these games are nothing but abstractions from reality. You can't assume the real world is going to play out the same. All you can do is use them to identify possible problems and possible opportunities. And I think we did that.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call. And Ken Pollack, thanks for your time today.

Mr. POLLACK: Thank you, Neal. Take care.

CONAN: Ken Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. And he joined us from his home in Maryland. You can find a link to the full report on the war games simulation on our Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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