Home / Robert Farley / Brookings Israel-Iran Game

Brookings Israel-Iran Game


The New York Times published another article on the Brookings write-up of an Israel-Iran wargame conducted in December. The opening stages of the game were strikingly similar to the Patterson Israel-Iran game of last month; Israel attacks without notifying the US, Iran responds in measured fashion, tension builds between Israel and the United States, and Israel prepares for major assault against Hezbollah. At that point, however, there’s a major change; Iran launches a ballistic missile attack against a Saudi oil refinery, and begins mining the Strait of Hormuz. At this point the United States gets involved, and the game ends just before a major US attack on Iranian military assets.

The key difference here is the decision by the Iranian team to attack Saudi Arabia and mine the Strait of Hormuz. This action forces the hand of the United States, and essentially resolves tension between the US, Israel, and the Gulf monarchies. It also results in a very serious setback for Iranian military power. At Patterson, our Iran team considered but rejected the possibility of expanding the war, preferring instead to play it cool and let the US-Israel relationship fester. Here’s Kenneth Pollack’s explanation of the reasoning of the Iranian team:

The Iran team’s decision to mount attacks on Saudi targets requires some explanation. The Iran team concluded that the fact that many of the Israeli aircraft had traversed Saudi Arabia was proof of Israeli and Saudi collusion. Control allowed this because it decided that in the real world, the Iranian regime might reach such a conclusion, given how paranoid and conspiracy-minded it is. Interestingly, the Iran team believed that it could attack Saudi targets, including Saudi oil targets, without necessarily provoking an American military response. Ultimately, they did overstep, but the measured and balanced initial American response to these attacks convinced the Iran team that they were right in this assumption and caused them to push harder, to the point where they did cross an American red line and provoked the U.S. military response they had sought to avoid.

The Iran team tried hard to gauge American red lines. When they did not get strong resistance to one of their moves, they kept pushing forward until they did—and in the most important instance, actually overstepped a U.S. red line. While we suspect the real Iranian regime would be more cautious about attacking Saudi oil targets (especially given the historical American reaction to Iranian attacks on Persian Gulf oil exports during the 1980s), this still suggests that a highly aggressive Iranian regime may see approaches that the United States considers “even-handed,” “balanced,” or even “neutral” as invitations to escalate. (Of course, a less aggressive Iranian regime might be provoked to escalatory actions they would not otherwise take if they saw American assertiveness as a sign of malign intent rather than as the clarification of a red line and the demonstration of American resolve to defend that red line.)

Two thoughts:

  • The Iranian decision to attack Saudi Arabia is both odd and self-destructive. How an Iranian team could have convinced itself that the US wouldn’t respond to an attack on one of its chief clients is beyond me; up to that point, it seems to me that the Iranians are doing quite well by pursuing a moderate strategy. Although Patterson assumed a much lower level of damage from the initial Israeli attack than Brookings, the Iranians were still widely regarded to have been the “winners” of the simulation. Of course, a writeup of the Brookings exercise was available to our students, giving them the opportunity to learn from earlier mistakes. However, the results of the Brookings exercise are also available to the Iranians; the point of such exercises is to inform government policy, and it wouldn’t be that surprising if governments other than the US paid attention.
  • It’s interesting and somewhat troubling to learn that the Iran simulators thought about the United States primarily in terms of strength, resolve, and will. I’ll pre-emptively caveat this by saying that I have no idea how the Iranians would actual treat the United States after an Israeli attack, and that I have no idea the value that the Iranians put on questions of reputation and resolve. Given, however, that the Iran players here were Americans and not actual Iranian officials, I’m somewhat suspicious of how closely Iranian behavior tracks an unsophisticated theory of the importance of a reputation for strength. According the Pollack, the Iranian team saw any sign of moderation on the part of the United States as a signal of weakness and irresolution. This is the worst fear of American neoconservatives; engagement and moderation signal weakness, and invite aggression. In this formulation, an “aggressor” like Iran is extremely risk-acceptant, pushing the United States until it reaches a “red line.” Had the US taken a firm line at some point, by this account, the Iranians would have understood and desisted from further “aggression.” This theory of diplomatic behavior, however, is both logically problematic and empirically suspect. While it’s possible that states will interpret moderation as weakness, they can also interpret it in other ways; our team at Patterson, for example, saw US moderation as understandable caution and sought to exploit differences between the US and Israel. Empirically, it’s unclear that reputations for weakness or strength form in a manner that’s necessary for this theory to work. As Jon Mercer argues, reputation for resolve depends much more on prior belief than on recent observed behavior. Thus, I have to wonder whether the Iranian team was operating on an unsophisticated set of theories about how Iranians ought to act, rather than pursuing self-interest in a more or less rational way. I particular have to wonder this in the context of the attack on Saudi Arabia, which is really hard to believe.

To put it as clearly as possible: In the Patterson simulation, Iran did very well by acting with restraint. In the Brookings simulation, Iran was doing very well by acting with restraint until someone decided that US moderation was weakness, at which point the Iranians launched an absurd attack and got crushed. Given this, isn’t it worthwhile to take into account the possibility that Iran could “win” such a crisis by acting with restraint? Or does that possibility undermine the whole rationale behind attacking Iran? This is to say, if we allow that Iran can act with restraint AFTER being attacked by Israel, doesn’t that open up the possibility that Iran could, well, act with restraint BEFORE being attacked by Israel? And wouldn’t that make such an attack pointless?

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  • qingl78

    I saw something with Robert Baer (sp?) the CIA guy who Syriana was partially based on and he said that the guys that he knew in Iran said that they would launch rockets against the Saudi oil fields if they were attacked and he kind of endorsed the idea in the sense that he it was a high probability.

    I think it was Colbert.

  • JW

    Armchair Churchillians tend to ignore the rude truth about nuclear weaponry.

    I doubt Israel would unilaterally attack Iran with the assumption the U.S. would back their play. If Israel makes that choice, they will be all in.

    At that point, a missile strike or the mining of harbors will be the least of the world’s problems.

    • Simple Mind

      Farley’s counterpart in France, Bertrand Badie, had a conversation up at Le Monde yesterday on Iran. Iran’s problem is that it has no allies at all…it’s a “loner” state rather than a “pariah” state, and is surrounded to the west (Israel), East (Pakistan) and North (Russia) by states with nuclear arsenals. No wonder a nuclear capacity is important to them as a deterrent -as well as a friendly Iraq (Tehran must be jumping for joy…) No, I don’t see Iran lobbing strikes at anyone. Israel has more “krazyman” potential…Try gaming with a foreign institution (Sciences-Po, Cambridge) for a saner “Iranians”.

  • cpinva

    if i were iran, it would make more sense to attack us assets in afghanistan, iraq & pakistan, giving the us something else to deal with, while iran waged full-out war with israel, and mined the strait of hormuz, keeping the us navy occupied as well.

    attacking saudi arabia, while ignoring local staging areas for us troops, seems borderline 16 year-old.

    • Robert Farley

      In both of these cases, Iran saw full out war with either the United States or Israel as a serious loser. The Iranian strategy in the Patterson sim and for the first half of the Brookings sim was to try to limit US-Israeli collaboration; a wide range of strikes in Iraq/Afghanistan was seen as ensuring that collaboration.

  • herr doktor bimler

    According the Pollack, the Iranian team saw any sign of moderation on the part of the United States as a signal of weakness and irresolution. This is the worst fear of American neoconservatives; engagement and moderation signal weakness, and invite aggression.

    It seems very strange to be discussing the decisions of a bunch of cos-players as if they provided an insight into the thought processes and likely behaviour of the actual Iranian leadership.

    • Robert Farley

      The problem is that any predictions about Iranian behavior (and everyone makes predictions, whether they’re interested in war or no) is based on a set of poorly tested assumptions about what’s important to Iran. Having Americans play Iran takes this a step farther, but it’s not actually all that distinct from other projects involving foreign policy projection.

      • DocAmazing

        If anyone were interested, Los Angeles has a large Iranian ex-pat community, complete with military veterans. If another wargame were being contemplated, it shouldn’t be that hard to put an ad in a Farsi newspaper in L.A. and get a consultant or two.

      • herr doktor bimler

        So essentially you have Team 1, trying to embody a particular set of assumptions and stereotypes about the Iranian leadership; and Team 2, trying to embody their own working model about the US leadership; and the interactions between them are controlled by Team 3, who are deciding what consequences should result from actions by the first two teams, according to their own model about How the Real World Works (presumably an unreliable model or there would be no need for these exercises).

        I suppose it keeps them all off the streets and stops them getting into mischief.

  • Lurker

    How likely is it that the US will openly support an Israeli strike on the Iranian soil? If such a strike would be good for the US interests, it would have happened in Bush’s term. So, the war games presented here postulated a strike which was not openly supported by the US.

    This is also a starting point to the Iranians. They do not want to wage war against a wide coalition of Israel, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq and the US. This would mean the end of the regime.

    Because Israel cannot really “win” a war it begins by striking at the Iranian targets, Iran will emerge as a winner from the stalemate, if it can prevent the crisis from escalating into a regional conflict. Israel only isolates itself from Europe and its relations to Arab neighbours worsen. When the war continues, it becomes ever more difficult for Israel to continue air strikes if Iran does not overreact. The Saudis must close their air space sooner or later and the US will face pressure from several sides to keep the Iraqi airspace closed. Turkey will definitely not be cooperating with the Israelis.

    Thus, the Iranian leadership should aim to isolate the conflict. This means friendly relations with Iraq and peace with Saudis and the US, even if they have been tacitly supporting the Israelis. The point is to minimize the number of open enemies, not to create more of them. Their rhetoric should be following the line: “If you are attacked by a rapid dog, you only die if you become rapid yourself.”

  • wengler

    This scenario has a low probability of happening in the first place for the reasons as follows:

    1) Israeli F-16s would violate US or US-allied controlled airspace at least one hour before striking in Iran.

    2) The IAF flies US aircraft.

    Israel needs US agreement if it wants to continue flying US military aircraft. If Israel attacks Iran it will be with the consent of the US government.

    • Robert Farley

      This depends on the definition of “consent.” In some sense, if the US fails to shoot down Israeli aircraft it has “consented.” This is different, however, than active US acquiesence (the Israelis ask and the US says ok). Whether the Iranians would see this as different is another question.

      • wengler

        Transit of controlled airspace in the furtherance of an act of war IS consent. The Iranian government or the opinions of neutrals will not make the distinction.

        US governmental officials saying “well we really didn’t want them to do it, but what are we gonna do shoot them down for doing something we think might be necessary?” isn’t going to make the US any less culpable for the Israeli action.

        And yet once again we find another reason that the Iraq war was the biggest foreign policy blunder in US history. Iraq couldn’t have likely scratched a single Israeli F-16 transiting their airspace, but the USAF controlling the same airspace should be able to stop them dead in their tracks. There is no plausible deniability of the US stopping such an attack.

        • Robert Farley


          I have no idea what kind of distinction Iran would make between active acquiesence and passive consent, and neither do you; I’m of the opinion that we should at least hold out the possibility that the Iranian leadership MIGHT make such a distinction, and that this could have policy effect.

          In these two simulations, making the distinction actually leads to better outcomes for Iran and the United States, and a worse outcome for Israel.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      Under what circumstances do you see the US discontinuing arms sales to Israel?

      I think that if the Israelis decided to bomb Doha(to pick a random Arab city), a large minority of US Senators and Congressmen would immediately support Israel and immediately ask what the Obama administration is doing to support Israel.

      Yes, I’m that cynical.


      Alan Tomlinson

      • wengler

        I’m sure a large minority of Congress considers Israel as the 51st state, but the goals of the US military have increasingly minimized the importance of supporting Israel in attempting to achieve progress with the Arabs they occupy. If the Israeli government puts US soldiers on the firing line through impulsive action, I think a lot of the support that Israel gets in this country will be proven to be rather shallow.

        I might be cynical too, but I also believe if the calculation is support of Jewish Israelis versus the free flow of Middle Eastern oil as it was back in ’73, oil will win out a lot larger than it did back then.

        We got shocked by oil prices climbing over 4 dollars a gallon. 6-7-8 dollars? Israel will be on its own.

  • rea

    Why on earth would Iran want to turn a confrontation with Israel and the US into a confrontation with Israel, the US and Sunni Islam?

    • Simple Mind


  • Dennis Brennan

    I see no evidence– really, none– that Iran would either directly take on Israel other than through proxies, or deliberately widen the war if the balloon did go up.

    • wengler

      I’m skeptical of the ability of the IAF to destroy these alleged nuclear sites. It’s no Osirak operation that’s for sure.

  • E L

    I find it a little strange that both war games end before 10 days when, in my opinion, the real fun begins as Iran adopts a slow revenge strategy against both Israel and the US using clients in Iraq, Afghanistan and, perhaps, Pakistan. For instance, Iranian clients could begin cutting US military supply lines. And what would the Iraqi government do? And, for that matter, Russia and China? About a month into the mess, some clear picture of the consequences might begin to emerge, but not in a few days.

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