The United States military conducted a classified war game simulation earlier this month to evaluate the likely consequences of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The game, called Internal Look, demonstrated the potentially high cost to the United States of an Israeli attack even without direct initial American participation.
The simulation included Iranian retaliatory missile strikes against American warships in the Persian Gulf, resulting in hundreds of American casualties. Obviously, this is an estimate, as it is impossible to be sure how the Iranian leadership would react to an attack against its nuclear program or whether it will be capable of, or interested in, distinguishing an Israeli attack from an American attack.
This simulation confirmed the risks involved in an attack on Iran revealed in a similar exercise conducted by the Brookings Institution in 2010. That study examined how Israeli, Iranian, and American decision makers would react in the event of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
The creators of the exercise decided to begin by having Israel attack without alerting American officials – a highly possible scenario – leading to initial tensions between the allies. When Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, responded with increasingly intense rocket barrages on Israel and terrorist activities around the world, the United States was placed in the difficult position of trying to calm the Iranians while simultaneously granting Israel approval for a limited engagement in Lebanon whose success was anything but guaranteed.
Less than eight days after the start of the exercise, the United States was preparing to stage a large scale aerial bombardment campaign that would devastate Iranian military forces. Even though the Israeli strike was deemed a success, the participants debated the overall efficacy of the bombings and many expressed concerns that the Iranian program would only be delayed at most a few years.
Many politicians expressing hawkish views on Iran, including Republican presidential candidate and former Senator Rick Santorum, have advocated launching an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities with blatant disregard for the repercussions. One commenter who has given credence to such outrageous claims has called a war with Iran the “least bad option” and has stated his belief that the American military would be able to conduct and manage a limited war.
Given the tremendous costs of America’s last “cakewalk” in the Middle East, it would behoove hawks like Senator Santorum to temper their rhetoric and develop a better appreciation for the potential costs of such a brash venture.
Although these are only war games, policy makers would do well not to ignore the dangers of the attacks they so blithely advocate. The outcomes of both exercises highlight the potential dangers of unintended consequences that could result from a preventive attack by either Israel or the United States. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, “If you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would be a catastrophe.”