US war simulation reveals hazards of Israeli strike against Iran


If Israel launches attacks against Iran to prevent it getting the bomb, the United States would likely be sucked into the ensuing war, write MARK MAZZETTIand THOM SHANKERin Washington

A CLASSIFIED war simulation exercise held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to US officials.

The officials said the so-called war game was not designed as a rehearsal for US military action and they emphasised that the exercise’s results were not the only possible outcome of a real-world conflict. But the game has raised fears among top US planners that it may be impossible to preclude US involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran, the officials said.

The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen James Mattis, who commands US forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and southwest Asia, and told aides that an Israeli first strike would likely have dire consequences across the region and for US forces there.

The two-week war game, called Internal Look, played out a narrative in which the US found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a US navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans. The US then retaliated by launching its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The initial Israeli attack was assessed to have set back the Iranian nuclear programme by roughly a year and the subsequent US strikes did not slow the Iranian programme by more than an additional two years. However, other Pentagon planners have said that America’s arsenal of long-range bombers, refuelling aircraft and precision missiles could do far more damage to Iranian nuclear aspirations – if US president Barack Obama were to decide on a full-scale retaliation.

The exercise was designed specifically to test internal military communications and co-ordination among battle staffs in the Pentagon, Tampa, Florida, home of the Central Command headquarters, and in the Persian Gulf in the aftermath of an Israeli strike. However, the exercise was written to assess a pressing, potential, real-world situation.

In the end, the war game reinforced to military officials the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of a strike by Israel and a counterstrike by Iran, the officials said.

US and Israeli intelligence services broadly agree on the progress Iran has made to enrich uranium. But they disagree on how much time there would be to prevent the Persian state from building a weapon if Tehran decided to go ahead with one.

With the Israelis saying publicly that the window to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb is closing, US officials see an Israeli attack on Iran within the next year as a possibility. They have said privately that they believe that Israel would probably give the US little or no warning should Israeli officials make the decision to strike Iranian nuclear sites.

Officials said that, under the chain of events, Iran believed that Israel and the US were partners in any strike against Iranian nuclear sites and therefore considered US military forces in the Persian Gulf as complicit in the attack. Iranian jets chased Israeli warplanes after the attack and Iranians launched missiles at a US warship in the Persian Gulf, viewed as an act of war that allowed an American retaliation.

Many experts have predicted that Iran would try to carefully manage the escalation after an Israeli first strike in order to avoid giving the US a rationale for attacking with its far superior forces.

Thus, it might use proxies to set off car bombs in world capitals or funnel high explosives to insurgents in Afghanistan to attack US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops. While using surrogates might, in the end, not be enough to hide Iran’s instigation of these attacks, the government in Tehran could at least publicly deny responsibility.

Some military specialists in the US and in Israel who have assessed the potential ramifications of an Israeli attack believe that the last thing Iran would want is a full-scale war on its territory. Thus, they argue that Iran would not directly strike US military targets, whether warships in the Persian Gulf or bases in the region.

Their analysis, however, also includes the broad caveat that it is impossible to know the internal thinking of the senior Iranian leadership and is informed by the awareness that even the most detailed war games cannot predict how nations and their leaders will react in the heat of conflict.

Yet these specialists continue their work, saying that any insight on how the Iranians will react to an attack will help determine whether the Israelis launch a strike – and what the US position will be if they do.

Israeli intelligence estimates, backed by academic studies, have cast doubt on the widespread assumption that a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would set off a catastrophic set of events like a regional conflagration, widespread acts of terrorism and sky-high oil prices.

“A war is no picnic,” Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio in November. But if Israel feels itself forced into action, the retaliation would be bearable, he said.

“There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead,” the defence minister said. “The state of Israel will not be destroyed.” – (New York Times service)