How Israel simulated war with Iran

An Israeli war game recently imagined the fallout from a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. David Patrikarakos reveals what he learned when he received exclusive access.

Last month, I caught a flight to Israel to watch an Israeli think-tank war game an attack on Iran. With me was the film director, Kevin Sim, who was making a documentary on Israel and Iran for Channel 4’s Dispatches. It has not been a good year for relations between the two countries. Controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme has intensified longstanding antipathies to dangerous levels. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now vows that he will do everything in his power to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, while Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, describes "the Zionist regime" as "weak and isolated", and, at a recent Quds Day (Jerusalem day) rally in Tehran, as a "tumour" that needs to be "cut out" of the region. And with both the US and EU heavily involved in the crisis, the world may yet tumble into another Middle East war.

The resulting film observes the War Game as a simulated exercise and looks at a range of internal Israeli views on the issue. It doesn’t look at the state of Iranian nuclear capability, nor does it examine the legal or moral arguments for or against an Israeli pre-emptive attack on another sovereign state, but it does offer an insight into how Israel thinks Iran would retaliate, which is vital to understanding the likelihood of any bombing.

The war game itself took place in Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, an ugly concrete building just off a main road in Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv. The Israelis had never previously allowed a British film crew inside what is the country’s pre-eminent security think-tank and, by implication, into the mind of its security establishment.

A war game is an oft-used tool in the strategic community. Loosely speaking, a bunch of official-types - in this case former deputy government ministers,  diplomats and military officials – get together to play out a particular event and its likely consequences. The conceit here was simple: at around midnight on the 9 November (in game time) three waves of Israeli planes struck Iran’s nuclear facilities, causing significant damage. What happened next would be played out by a number of teams representing Israel, the USA, Iran, the EU, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Russia – the nexus of interlocking relationships that would likely dictate the fallout of any attack in real life.

Unsurprisingly, the Iranian team decided to respond to the strikes by launching its Shahab-3 ballistic missiles at targets in Israel, as well as pressuring its proxy militia groups, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, to launch their own missiles at Israel. Unfortunately for Iran, both were reluctant to do anything that would provoke massive Israeli retaliation. The USA, meanwhile, was keen that events did not spiral out of control while assuring the Israelis they had its full support – especially in the UN Security Council. Egypt and Jordan resisted Iranian pressure to cancel their peace treaties with Israel while Iran’s nuclear partner Russia (it is building Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Reactor) promised that it would give the Iranians aid and press their case internationally. The UN appealed to all sides to come to the negotiating table; nobody took any notice. 

Israeli military policy has longed contained an element of adventurism and its influence seemed to be at work here. By the end of the game, the Israelis had attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities a second time, and suffered only a barrage of missiles from Iran in return. And with both Hezbollah and Hamas choosing to stay out of the conflict, it had escaped relatively unscathed. The strike was condemned internationally. The Iranians, meanwhile, were not able to use their status as victims of an attack to have the sanctions on the country lifted, nor were they successful in lobbying to have sanctions placed on Israel; and with their nuclear programme devastated, were the clear losers.

This was an Israeli exercise and all the players, albeit representing different sides, were Israeli. In the end the war game was less memorable for its results and more for providing an insight into how the Israeli military and political class think.

 In reality, it is unlikely that Israel would escape so lightly after attacking a country that fought a long and devastating war with Iraq for eight years – all alone. The game was based on the assumption that an Israeli airstrike could successfully knock out the bulk of Iran’s nuclear facilities, which are spread across a huge country and buried deep underground – for the very purpose of protecting them from such an attack.

But if military confidence exists within the strategic community, the population at large appear less certain. Since 1948 Israel has fought five wars and, since 1967, been in almost constant conflict in the occupied territories. Through Tamara, a mother whose only son, Danel, has volunteered to serve in a combat unit during his military service, we were able to gain an insight into the psyche of a society perennially at war.

Tamara outlined her fears for her son, who is in the fighting arm of an army that can, and most likely will, be called into action; and in a country where everyone - both men and women - serves in the army, this fear is pervasive. Tamara represents the millions of Israelis, who now just want to live in peace and have their children grow up in a less violent world.

While she recognised the need for an army, given Israel’s tiny size, and its existence in a region surrounded by what she perceived as enemies, the weariness was clear: Many Israelis are sick of all the fighting, and the prospect of war with Iran is terrifying. If Israel does attack Iran, Israeli fear of Iranian retaliation may be just as great as the fear of living with an Iranian bomb.

David Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State

Dispatches: Nuclear War Games is on Channel 4 on Monday 5 November, 8pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uses a diagram of a bomb to describe Iran's nuclear program while delivering his address to the 67th UN General Assembly meeting. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.