Inside Israel's Nuclear War Games
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On the 24 September at Israel’s National Institute of Security Studies, an obdurately dull building off a main road in Tel Aviv, three dozen men and women drawn from the top echelons of Israel’s political and military elite met to play a war-game, the outcome of which could help decide whether Israel goes to war with Iran.
I was in Israel with film director, Kevin Sim, who was making a documentary on the war game for ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4.
The notional starting point of the game was 9 November 2012, just after the American presidential elections. Participants were divided into ten groups each representing likely key players in the conflict – Israel, Iran, the US, Russia, Hezbollah, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Russia and the UN. All the teams were made up of Israelis.
The war game is what it says it is – a game. Despite its seriousness, inside the Institute there was an air of make-believe.
The “Netanyahu” who led the Israeli team was an imposter – a former Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel. Two former government ministers took turns to play Obama. Putin was a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow.
The war game was designed to explore the likely outcome of an Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran; it didn't examine the legal or moral arguments for or against any such strike but rather focused on how the Iranians might retaliate and what the wider fallout would be.
The game began when the players were told that just after midnight, in a surprise air raid, Israeli bombers had attacked nuclear installations deep inside Iran. First reports indicated that Israel had acted alone without consent or help from the Americans.
The Iranians responded quickly to the Israeli strike, launching a barrage of Shahab-3 ballistic missiles (based on the North Korean Nodong-1 missile) at Israeli targets, including the country’s largest city, Tel Aviv. Then they discussed their political goals.
The most immediate of these was the desire to rebuild the nuclear programme, preferably to a level “beyond what it was on the eve of the strike.” Given their newfound status as victims of an attack, another priority was to have the sanctions on Iran lifted; and to have sanctions placed on Israel for its “unprovoked act.”
They also decided to offer Jordan and Egypt extensive aid packages to cancel their peace treaties with Israel, before debating a key dilemma: whether or not to attack US targets. With Iran’s considerable influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention its huge presence in the Gulf, the Iranians could cause huge problems for Washington.
In the end, though, the decision was taken to refrain; Washington was one more complication they didn't need. Russia (which has been building the Bushehr nuclear power plant) was also approached for immediate help to rebuild the devastated facilities, as well as delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missiles and a consignment of Sukhoi 24 aircraft.
Militarily, Iran tried to get its allies – namely, its proxy militia groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – to enter the conflict on its behalf.
"All our help to you over the years," the Israeli playing Ahmadinejad (a former colonel in military intelligence) declared in a meeting with Hezbollah, "has been for the purpose of this moment."
"There’s no such thing as a free lunch," his assistant added. The Lebanese declared they were only too happy to help - in any way that would not bring massive Israeli retaliation down on Lebanon. There was tension in the room.
The Israelis, meanwhile, had met with the “US President” (the Israelis deliberately made no comment on who had won the 7 November US Presidential election), who, despite being unhappy at the lack of a “timely announcement” about the “premature” strike, reiterated his support for Israel.
Washington’s primary concern, it seemed, was to avoid an escalation of hostilities in what it considered to be the world’s most volatile region. It raised the status of alert for its forces across the Middle East.
The Israelis were clear on what they wanted from their US ally. Most important was for Washington to use its ‘good offices’ in Lebanon and Gaza to prevent Hezbollah and Hamas inflaming the situation. The Israelis also wanted US ships in the area, armed with Aegis anti-missile systems, to help intercept the Iranian missiles raining down on them.
Finally, they requested that the US maintain pressure on Iran in the UN Security Council, and to help ensure that Israel was not the victim of ‘one sided resolutions in the United Nations."
Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks on as Iranian military hardware is displayed march during the National Army Day parade in Tehran, Iran
On the ground, things were tense. As Iran continued shelling Israel, people began to leave Tel Aviv heading to the South.
Fearing Israeli retaliation, Hezbollah limited themselves to firing only a few, sporadic Katyusha rockets into northern Israel in an attempt to placate their Iranian patron, and succeeded in pushing the inhabitants of the city of Kiryat Shmona into heading south as well.
Israel, in turn, instructed its army not to respond to the firing from Lebanon without the Minister of Defense’s authorization; army reserves were called up.
But the Israelis were also planning – for a second wave of strikes against Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities, which they undertook about 24 hours (in game time) after the first.
This second strike seemed to encapsulate the war game for Israel. Its boldness rewarded and Iran simply unable to respond in kind: limited to firing missiles at Israel, many of which were intercepted - largely by itself.
By the game’s end, Iran’s nuclear facilities had been almost totally destroyed. Hezbollah and Hamas had done nothing more than launch a few token rocket salvos at Israel, while Iranian missiles had been of only limited effect.
Iran had also failed in its attempts to have the sanctions on it removed and, thanks to US cover in the UN Security Council, it had also failed to have sanctions placed on Israel. It was the game’s clear loser.
Yehuda Ben-Meir, the former deputy foreign minister of Israel, who had played Netanyahu, summed the situation up. “The principal insight we gained was that following an Israeli attack the entire world was interested in calming the region down.
"Before the attack everyone had something to say on a possible attack but once it became a fait accompli the world wanted to know what would happen next, and everyone’s goal was to contain the situation and to prevent escalation.”
I had seen Israel’s perspective on a possible attack and now wanted an Iranian view, so I caught a flight to Istanbul to put the game’s results to Hossein Mousavian, a former member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. He believed the game was deeply flawed.
Dismissing the limited nature of Iran’s response, Mousavian argued that in reality Iran would respond ‘by all means’, employing the total power of its armed forces to draw Israel into a long-term war. Perhaps, more importantly, Mousavian argued that Iran would see the US as complicit.
Iranians, he said, are convinced that Israel is too small to attack Iran unilaterally Iran. "They see Israeli as just a baby,” he said. “One that would never act without US assistance.”
The attack would also have huge regional consequences, he continued. Most obviously, Iran would use its status as the symbol of resistance against Israel in the Middle East to stoke the high levels of anti-Americanism that already exist there.
Even groups like Al Qaeda, he argued, who are Iran’s enemies, would use “inflamed Muslim sentiment to launch attacks at American citizens across the world and on US soldiers on the many American bases in the region.”
At the end of our interview, he leaned forward, took my arm and looked me right in the eyes. He recalled the Israeli strikes on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and a Syrian reactor in 2007.
“This is the big mistake that people make,” he told me. “To think if Israel attacks Iran, like it attacked Iraq and Syria, the Iranians would not retaliate.
"The nation is one hundred percent different. The whole region would be engulfed.”