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.
Anoosh Chakelian
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A view from Brexitland: Boston, the town that voted strongest to leave the EU

This little pocket of Lincolnshire is waking up to the realisation that its voice has finally been heard.

It’s market day in Boston. Stall owners are setting up, chattering and squinting in the crisp morning sunshine. Trade yawns into life amid the stands of fruit, squat pots of begonias, secondhand comics and pet supplies, as it does every Saturday.

But this isn’t every Saturday. The little Lincolnshire town is waking up to the realisation that its voice has finally been heard. It has returned the highest Brexit vote in Britain, with 75.6 per cent voting to leave the European Union. An aim that has boiled beneath its quiet, quaint surface for years.

Described by the Mail three years ago as “the town that’s had enough”, Boston is home to the highest concentration of EU migrants after London. In the period between 2004 and 2014, the migrant population increased by 460 per cent. Of the 64,000 people now living in the borough (some officials believe the real figure could be 10,000 more), about 12 per cent were born in EU countries.

This is a monumental demographic change for a sleepy farming town that was almost entirely classed as “white British” in 2001 (the constituency of Boston & Skegness is now 86 per cent white British, and 10.8 per cent “white other”).


West Street, Boston. Photos: Anoosh Chakelian

The new Bostonians are chiefly Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian – I also hear smatterings of Russian as I wander around. The market square is filled with elderly English people, gossiping and enjoying cooked breakfasts in the sun, young men excited about the Poland v Switzerland match that afternoon, and families of all backgrounds. It’s a mix, but anxiety about people speaking different languages is voiced by nearly every born-and-bred Bostonian I meet.

“If you close your eyes, you can sometimes only hear eastern European voices, and that can be scary,” remarks Paul, a 59-year-old engineer perusing the fruit stands. “Because of the language barrier, they all stay together, almost like a ghetto. People are people wherever they come from, and we wouldn’t have a maternity unit without them, but it’s been too fast. Integration takes time; you can’t do it instantly.”

“People joke here that you can walk through the town and not hear a single English person,” adds Chrissie Redford, a chief reporter at the Boston Standard, during a coffee break from reporting. “And that’s happened to me. My concern is now so many people have voted, whether that rift will get deeper.”

Three Latvian men in their thirties are sharing a beer in the nearby churchyard. Boston’s tall, distinctive medieval church tower, known affectionately as the Stump, looms over them. “What happens now?” asks Vitels, who is rolling a cigarette. He has been working factory shifts here. “I can’t go back to Latvia, there are big problems there. Romania, Bulgaria, everywhere there has been war. Nobody wants to live like that. [Brexit] makes me feel bad. People think I’m difficult, because I’m foreign.”

“The economy in Latvia is not good, but in Britain it’s very good,” frowns Gatis, who is self-employed. “Why are we here? Because we live much better here. It’s nicer.”

The English agree, which is part of the problem. “It’s a really good way of life in this area, and that is why it went so heavily for Out,” Mike Cooper, the tweed-clad owner of a local car museum, and Tory borough councillor, tells me, as we weave between the market stalls. “People feel that the massive influx is eroding their way of life. We’re not being racially intolerant; we’re living with it day to day.”

Cooper voted to leave, but there is no spring in his step. The local politicians and farm and factory owners know that this town relies on migration. Eastern Europeans settle in Boston because there is such a demand for agricultural labour, and for food manufacturing workers. Most of the vegetables we buy in our supermarkets are grown in Lincolnshire.

The perception persists among some I meet that migrants are “taking jobs from our own people”, but unemployment here is comfortably below the national average. The council estimates that around 20,000 economic migrants work in the Boston area, whereas the current number of people claiming unemployment benefits was just 630 on the last count, according to Office of National Statistics figures from May.


Boston voted for Brexit by 75.6 per cent.

But such a large low-paid workforce does cause difficulties. The average wage here has been forced down (£9.13 an hour, compared with the £13.33 national average) by employment agencies hiring cheap, flexible labourers. Similarly, rents have been driven up disproportionately by landlords taking advantage of the newcomers’ willingness to live ten to a house.

But migrants complain that they receive the blame for this, rather than those abusing their vulnerability. “It’s quite sad, because it looks like [politicians] aren’t interested in these things,” says a 40-year-old construction worker, Zee Barbaks, who campaigns against exploitative gangmasters. He and his wife, both Latvian, arrived in Boston 11 years ago. Before their two young children were of school age, they alternated factory shifts in order to look after them, “swapping them over in the car park”. I sit on a park bench with him while his son scampers around the playground.

“Agencies keep people out of holiday money and sick pay, they make them pay their wages on accommodation,” Barbaks says. “When women get pregnant they don’t give them work. Sometimes they use three people for one job – so those people are getting nothing.”

He is saddened by the huge local Brexit vote: “Ten years ago, Boston was empty. Before, every second shop was closed on West Street,” he says. “If you look now, there are loads of changes in a good way, eastern Europeans starting businesses. But now, if they stay out of Europe, in ten years’ time, it’s going to be like it was ten years ago. They’ve just done ten steps back.

“I understand that it is loads of people who have moved in, but if the agencies were sorted out, there would probably be less people here. This is what the government should be looking at.”

But it’s a perceived cultural divide, rather than material concern, which has driven Boston so strongly towards Brexit. Even the Ukip deputy leader of Boston Borough Council, Jonathan Noble, concedes that West Street was a ghost street when recession hit before the migrants set up shop (“so they have done some good here”).


Councillor Noble thanks Boston for voting Leave.

Although people worry about pressure on public services – difficulty getting school places and GP appointments, in particular – the local economy is healthy. The message they have sent to Westminster is a plea for identity.

“We’re British,” shrugs Mike, a 66-year-old retired lorry driver sitting outside a café. “I don’t care if prices go up; at least we’ll be running ourselves. We’re top of the league for wanting them [migrants] out. Some of the Polish people are nice, but there are too many.

“Barack Obama, flipping David Beckham, Bob Geldof, Cameron saying it’s good to have them here – that made me more determined, I got fed up with it. All the money is down in London, it’s disgusting. [Immigration’s] gone too far anyway, I doubt much will change. We should’ve listened to Enoch Powell. Good old Enoch,” he chuckles. His wife gives him a stern look.

“I’ve heard there’s a sign on a shop in West Street that says ‘No English’,” adds his friend Fred. “I might want to buy a Polish cake. But they don’t want to mix with us.”

Walking up and down West Street – where there are numerous eastern European restaurants, Baltic food stores, a Latvian bakery and Polish pub, and roars of “Polska!” from football fans – I can’t find that ‘No English’ sign. I doubt it exists. But it’s the perception that’s telling. English locals are the ones who feel unwelcome, far more so than their European neighbours (those I speak to are overwhelmingly positive about their hometown). They also feel their views are unwelcome in Westminster.

“We’re the ones living it,” says Chris Pain, who has owned a number of businesses in Boston and sits as an independent on Lincolnshire County Council. “When in London they say ‘we need more people’, we know that’s not true. They like it [immigration] because they can eat in nice restaurants and have people from abroad doing their menial work.”

There is hope for integration in a post-Brexit Boston, however. Young people I speak to are far more positive about their foreign neighbours. “I’ve grown up with knowing the EU,” says Kirsty, a 21-year-old graduate training to become a teacher. “I have no problem with the other communities. I’ve worked in McDonald’s and cafés around here with people from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia and they’re absolutely wonderful. People need to learn to understand each other more – actually communicate. And they don’t; that’s why there’s a misunderstanding.”

Also hinting at a more harmonious future is Sylvia Giza, 38, who has lived in Boston for 12 years. She works behind the counter of a Polish butcher’s off West Street. “We pay tax, we are educated, we buy a house. We’re not scary. I have three children, they go to school and learn English, and now they are speaking in English to me at home! So I take the book and try working and reading,” she grins, turning to her next customer – an English woman surveying the array of Polish sausages.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.