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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.

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.

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