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.)
- 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?