Monday, November 15, 2004

Iran: What's Next?

In "Will Iran Be Next?" James Fallows (The Atlantic Monthly, December 2004) describes a war game conducted by The Atlantic involving soldiers, spies, and diplomats, to determine how an American President could respond to Iran's push to obtain nuclear weapons.

The game's participants, first determining that an Osirak-type preemptive strike would be too demanding for Israel, then focused on the military options available to the U.S. In the role of commander of CENTCOM, Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel in charge of running the simulated war game, presented a three-stage military option. The first level would be a punitive raid on key Iranian Revolutionary Guard units. At the second level, a 5-day pre-emptive air strike -- deemed a low-risk military option if the U.S were to do it -- could be launched against possible nuclear facilities. At the third level of involvement, a "regime change" invasion would be mounted.
The overall plan of attack was this: a "deception" effort from the south, to distract Iranian troops; a main-force assault across the long border with Iraq; airborne and Special Forces attacks from Afghanistan and Azerbaijan; and cruise missiles from ships at sea.The overall plan of attack was this: a "deception" effort from the south, to distract Iranian troops; a main-force assault across the long border with Iraq; airborne and Special Forces attacks from Afghanistan and Azerbaijan; and cruise missiles from ships at sea.
All five of the game's participants voted to nix the regime-change plan as too risky.

The lessons of the game, according to Fallows? The United States cannot tolerate a radical regime like Iran getting its hands on nuclear weapons. Yet, it has no military option to stop Iran from getting those nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, diplomatic methods, absent a military threat, will not deter Iran from developing the weapons it seeks. So, a U.S. president can only bluff, pretending he has a military solution, when he does not, in the hope that Iran will be fooled.

Fallows wonders aloud whether this is a message that should be published as a cover story in a major periodical: "Is it therefore irresponsible to say in public, as our participants did and we do here, that the United States has no military solution to the Iran problem?" Fallows looks for assurance from Thomas Hammes, a Marine expert in counterinsurgency, who maintains that a government can never assume its enemy will not do something that is "unviable." "History shows," Hammes insists, "that countries make very serious mistakes."

To say that the only strategic option of the U.S. is a bluff is to misunderstand the possibility of mixed strategies in a sequential game of moves, in which the dynamics of play are similar to those that were present in the Cuban missile crisis. (See Steven J. Brams, Game theory and the Cuban missile crisis.) A policy of brinksmanship, ever maintaining a non-negligible probability of invasion, would plainly carry great risks, but may be more likely to produce a better outcome for the U.S. and the West than the unacceptable result of acquiescing to the emergence of Iran as a nuclear power.


Note: The Adventures of Chester promises another critique of the Atlantic's cover story on Tuesday evening.

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