Blind Man’s Bluff
The truth about Iran is that we haven't got a clue how the Islamic Republic would respond to an attack.
Over the past three months, several prominent American think tanks and academic institutions have conducted simulation games about the Iranian crisis. Although these war games have nicely covered almost all facets of the problem, they have left one aspect mostly understudied: the nature of Iran's response to a U.S. or Israeli airstrike. I recently took part in two U.S. government-sponsored games in which the participants attempted to provide a modest assessment of that crucial issue.
Over the past three months, several prominent American think tanks and academic institutions have conducted simulation games about the Iranian crisis. Although these war games have nicely covered almost all facets of the problem, they have left one aspect mostly understudied: the nature of Iran’s response to a U.S. or Israeli airstrike. I recently took part in two U.S. government-sponsored games in which the participants attempted to provide a modest assessment of that crucial issue.
War simulation games are certainly not a new invention in government practice. Indeed, the history of strategy and that of simulation are inseparable. Ever since men formed armies and thought of ways to outfox their enemies, simulation has been an integral part of military planning. The art of simulation was perfected during the Cold War, but once the Soviet Union fell, it experienced a lull. Today, as the United States faces the Iranian nuclear challenge, simulation is back in business.
The simulations in which I participated began with the premise that the U.S. president, having exhausted all diplomatic strategies, had just made the tough decision to employ military force against Iran, with the chief objective of destroying or at least seriously damaging the country’s key nuclear-power centers. With this hypothetical scenario in mind, the participants tried to assess the Iranian response to a limited U.S. airstrike. Driving this assessment was the assumption that though the U.S. intelligence community possesses some knowledge about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) retaliatory capabilities, it has no clue as to how the IRGC would choose to respond.
So we laid out three fairly basic scenarios. First, no response: Iran absorbs the hit and uses it to play the role of victim before the international community and reap whatever diplomatic benefits. Second, a symbolic, limited response: Iran fires back in peripheral theaters such as Lebanon/Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan, perhaps launching in tandem a terrorist campaign against U.S. interests at home or abroad, all for the purpose of saving face and preserving some of its deterrent posture and defiant image. Third, a full-on response: Tehran makes use of all its retaliatory tools, possibly leading to an all-out, strategic confrontation with the United States and Israel.
Each scenario had its group of backers. Those predicting the first scenario were few, but their voices were loud. Just like U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who asserted during the Cuban missile crisis that the Soviets would do "nothing" in response to a U.S. airstrike, these analysts argued that Iran’s mullahs, who prize the regime’s survival above all else, would not risk their own necks by retaliating.
The majority of participants backed the second scenario. The thought was that, though Iran would do its utmost to avoid an all-out war with the United States, the political costs of holding fire would be too great. For a leadership that prides itself on being the vanguard of Islamic resistance against the "evil West," inaction or ineptitude would be ridiculed at home, make a mockery of its deterrence posture, and lead to domestic political upheaval.
The third scenario — all-out war — though remote, has led strategic planners inside the Pentagon to work day and night, participants with inside knowledge said.
To understand whether the regime would actually make such a suicidal move requires an incisive understanding of the Iranian leadership’s mindset. Unfortunately, there are two important challenges to Washington’s effort to read Tehran. First, though U.S. intelligence on Iran is slowly improving, it remains severely lacking. Americans barely know how Iran functions in peaceful times, let alone how it would respond to an external threat it might perceive as existential.
Second, the Iranian regime is notoriously opaque and factionalized. There may be political harmony and ideological congruence between the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but there is no reason to presume that these two central players (and that’s assuming the IRGC is a homogeneous organization) have identical beliefs. This makes any attempt at deciphering the collective Iranian response to a possible U.S. preventive attack more elusive.
All participants agreed that history could serve as a useful guide to the future. The United States relied on a similar approach during the Cold War, dissecting Moscow’s response to multiple crises in various theaters and concluding that its enemy was politically aggressive but militarily cautious.
Today, the United States needs that same type of strategic assessment vis-à-vis Iran, if Washington ever finds that the only way to solve the Iranian nuclear problem is through the calculated use of force. By carefully examining, for example, how Iran fought in the 1980-1988 war against Iraq, how it behaved during several military crises with the United States (the 1987-1988 and 1995-1997 ones are two examples), and how it "instructed" Hezbollah to respond to Israel during the 2006 summer war, we can very roughly deduce the following: Its messianic ideology and belligerent rhetoric notwithstanding, Iran is not suicidal.
Most military historians agree that, despite Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces, Tehran’s conventional response was relatively measured during the Iran-Iraq War. Also, in 2006, despite Israel’s pounding of Hezbollah’s civilian strongholds in Beirut, the Shiite group did not bomb the petrochemical plants in Haifa largely because it and the Iranians wanted to avoid a total war. Although Iran did not hesitate to defend itself and its interests in all these direct and indirect military encounters, it exercised some restraint and refrained from crossing any red lines that would place the Islamic regime’s future in jeopardy.
But different crises require different responses. There is no reason for Americans to think that Iran will restrain itself against its most hated enemy, the United States. Therefore, more cues on how the Iranians could respond to U.S. or Israeli airstrikes are needed. Some U.S. officials might be tempted to think that one way to acquire more cues is by "testing" the Iranians in various local crises in the region where they have a presence (Iraq) or major interests (Lebanon and Afghanistan) to defend.
Today, no one in Barack Obama’s administration is seriously contemplating employing military force to halt Iran’s nuclear program. But the Iranian nuclear clock keeps ticking, and time is certainly not on America’s side.
For reasons that could be beyond Washington’s control, Obama or his successor might find himself or herself in the unenviable position of ordering the U.S. military to bomb Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Absent a reliable reading and strategic assessment of Tehran’s resolve and its likely response, Washington should shelve the military option altogether. U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East demand that Washington be very careful not to slide, once again unprepared, toward another disastrous war in the region.
Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow and the director of the defense and security program at the Middle East Institute and an associate fellow with Chatham House.
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