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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue