An Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could set back the country’s nuclear program by three years — at least according to the scenario used as the basis for a “war game” conducted by a leading Israeli think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies, in late September.
Iran could initially find itself with only limited diplomatic and military options following such an Israeli attack, the exercise concluded.
Scenes and analysis from the exercise were broadcast Monday night on Britain’s Channel 4 current-affairs program “Dispatches,” which gained exclusive access. The Times of Israel was one of a small number of media outlets shown a preview.
The relatively upbeat conclusions of the Israeli war game were challenged by a former Iranian nuclear negotiator, however. And the commissioning editor of Dispatches said he was “terrified” to see that the “Israelis thought it could be so easy, that they could get away with it with relatively low levels of casualties.”
As portrayed on the show, the war game opens with Israel’s successful bombing of Iran’s nuclear program and plays out events over the following 48 hours.
On the program, the Israeli prime minister — played by former National Religious Party Knesset member Yehuda Ben Meir — is seen considering a second strike immediately.
Iran’s response is a barrage of hundreds of rockets on Israeli towns that hit targets ranging from a Beersheba shopping mall to the military headquarters in Tel Aviv, prompting an exodus of Israeli residents. However, according to the program’s narrator, “The Iranian players’ options are limited. They don’t want to bring America into the war by inflicting too much damage on Israel or attacking the US directly.”
Iran’s main objective is stopping Israeli attacks.
Buoyed by the Israelis’ initial success, Ben Meir proposed to the Americans that Israel “create pressure” on Iran by bombing governmental targets in the country.
However, the Americans — who in this scenario were not notified of the Israeli attack in advance — say their aim is to calm the situation rather than escalate it.
“We can’t support an expansion of the military operation,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union, who plays the American president.
The war game opens with Israel’s successful bombing of Iran’s nuclear program and plays out events over the following 48 hours
All the main figures were played by Israelis, with the hundreds of participants including former Israeli diplomats, politicians, senior military figures and academics.
Ultimately, the team playing the Israelis battled to gain as much advantage as possible before a UN resolution condemning them was passed. However, the Israelis are shown welcoming the prospect of such international intervention.
“There are two possibilities,” one member of the team said. “The fighting will go on — that is not good for Israel. Hezbollah will enter [the war]. No UN resolution is actually bad for Israel. Our interest is to end the affair.”
Ultimately, the program concludes that the Israelis managed to set Iran’s nuclear program back by three years, and that there was little the Iranians could do about it.
The program includes one cautionary voice, however, from former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Moussavian, who says that Iran would not hesitate to retaliate by attacking American targets because it is inconceivable that Israel would attack Iran without American permission.
“It is a mistake to think that the Iranian response would be restricted,” he said. “The whole region would be engulfed.”
According to Kevin Sim, the director of the “Dispatches” episode, the war game fit into a series of others, particularly in America, in which “the world is so terrified of this spreading that all diplomatic efforts [are put into] not letting it spread, a quick conclusion.”
In other war games, however, an Israeli bombing campaign led to “disaster, complete conflagration,” he said.
He emphasized that although the scenario shown on British television showed the Iranians choosing relative restraint, it covered only the first 48 hours after an Israeli attack, and in the long-term, a war of attrition would be likely.
“There may be greater long-term benefits in not striking back,” he said. “They would be playing the long game.”
Daniel Pearl, the commissioning editor of “Dispatches,” said that the Israelis’ apparent belief that the conflict would be limited, at least its first 48 hours, “is more interesting than whether they’re wrong or not. We’re trying to show [that] this is what Israelis playing Iranians think, and they’re telling their government that.”
He said he was “terrified Israelis thought it could be so easy, that they could get away with it with relatively low levels of casualties.”
The “Dispatches” episode is told almost entirely from an Israeli point of view, emphasizing the debates within Israel over how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, and follows one mother, Tamar Jaffee, who worries about the future of her son Daniel, a soldier in the IDF.
‘It is a mistake to think that the Iranian response would be restricted,’ a former Iranian negotiator says. ‘The whole region would be engulfed’
The INSS’s conclusions, which are set to be presented to the Israeli government, are laid out in a brief report that was released Sunday. The document emphasizes that it is not making predictions, but examining the implications of one particular scenario. Its broader account of the war game included the reactions of teams playing Hamas, Hezbollah, Egypt and the Syrians, as well as Russia and China.
The two terror groups, in this version of events, struggled to balance Iran’s need to attack Israel, using them as proxies, with their
desire to avoid domestic upheaval. The Arab countries and Turkey chose to distance themselves from events and “prevent widespread regional escalation.”
Outside the region, meanwhile, Russia tried to assert leadership, but was paralyzed by a clash with the US over the correct course of action, opening the door for China to take a more active role.
While Iran was initially careful not to attack American targets, by the end of the simulation, it had concluded that this strategy was a dead end.
“The more Iran felt it was cornered and its freedom of action was curtailed,” says the report, “it realized that its strongest card lay in
acting against America’s allies in the [Persian] Gulf and closing the Strait of Hormuz” — a move that the Americans have said would force them to react militarily.
The report concluded that Iran was vulnerable because it relied on proxies — Hezbollah and Hamas — that could be deterred, allowing “the
insertion of a wedge between Iran and its regional allies, thereby preventing regional escalation and encouraging containment.”
Other factors that would help contain events, the INSS said, were America clearly standing with Israel, and an Israeli policy of restraint.