Will America get pulled into another Mideast war? Newsweek hosted a ‘war game’ with former U.S. officials to find out.

By Dan Ephron

It’s 5 in the morning when the phone rings at the beachfront home of Dan Shapiro, the American ambassador to Israel. On the line is Rafi Barak, the head of Israel’s foreign ministry, sounding tense. Israel has struck six Iranian nuclear facilities overnight, causing extensive damage, he says. Israel’s foreign minister will soon be calling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with details.

The military complex at Parchin, Iran, in 2004. (DigitalGlobe-Institute for Science and International Security via AP)

Thirty minutes later, Shapiro and a team from the U.S. Embassy that includes the military attaché and the CIA station chief arrive at Israel’s Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv for a briefing. Operation Whirlwind, they’re told, involved dozens of Israeli warplanes; covert landings in Ethiopia, India, and Saudi Arabia; and a complicated choreography of electronic jammings and midair refuelings. One Israeli plane went down during the offensive, but the rest of the operation, a huge undertaking for Israel, went off cleanly.

In Washington, President Obama’s national-security adviser quickly convenes a meeting of top aides and cabinet secretaries. The president is on the campaign trail, but he wants his team to discuss the crisis and make recommendations by noon. Early in the discussion the advisers rule out American military action, for now at least, and agree that Washington’s aim is to lower the flames in the region. “The goal of short-term policy should be not to escalate, to try to contain this,” one of them says. In their memo to the president, they list the administration’s top objectives, including protecting Americans in the region, minimizing the impact on the world economy, and defending Israel from Iranian reprisals.

Open Zion’s Peter Beinart offers his prediction on whether Israel will attack Iran soon.

But as the discussion winds on, the scenarios in which America finds itself dragged into the conflict seem to multiply. By the end of the meeting, one participant puts the odds at 50 percent of the U.S. having to use military force against Iran in the aftermath of Israel’s assault. Others suggest it’s even higher. “We could be at the front end of a major escalation to a Mideast war,” one of the advisers observes.

An Israeli attack on Iran would present the United States with one of the most complicated and vexing situations the country has faced in decades. The scenario outlined above—the outcome of a recent simulation conducted by Newsweek—offers one version of how events might play out. The simulation, known among military planners as a “war game,” aimed to understand what factors would shape the decision-making in the Obama administration. Specifically we wanted to know: what would happen if the Israelis strike before the U.S. election in November?

Although in recent weeks it has looked like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is backing away from an attack, an October surprise cannot be ruled out. In some ways, the perception that an Israeli operation is no longer imminent makes the coming weeks a more appealing window for Netanyahu to order military action. “The hour is getting late,” the Israeli leader told the United Nations General Assembly in September. “Very late.”

As part of the war game, Newsweek convened seven former political and military officials and staged a mock meeting of the “Principals Committee”—the team the president calls on for recommendations about matters of the highest importance. Assuming the roles of Obama’s key advisers, including his chief of staff, his national security adviser, secretaries of state and defense, directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the panel was roughly analogous to the group Obama consulted before ordering the operation against Osama bin Laden last year.

Former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, now at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Mideast Policy, prepared detailed briefing papers on the Israeli attack, during which Israeli strikes knocked out some facilities but left other key parts operational. The documents indicated that Israel had set back the Iranian nuclear program with its attack but hadn’t managed to destroy it. They also outlined international responses to the operations: denunciations across Europe, rocket attacks on Israel by Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah group, and small-scale street protests around the Muslim world.

The “principals” filed into a boardroom at the Brookings Institution in Washington at 8 a.m. on a recent Friday, as newspaper headlines announced two new developments in the Persian puzzle: riots in Iran over the plunging value of its currency and heightened tensions between Iran ally Syria and its neighbor to the north, Turkey. The team included two former CIA deputy directors, Richard Kerr and John McLaughlin; two people who served in senior positions at the Pentagon, Rudy deLeon and Bing West; the former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta and the veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering.

The men had all crossed paths in Washington over the years and seemed comfortable with each other—two of them bantered before the meeting about their experience during the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. All came in jackets and ties but shed a layer before the discussion got underway.

Running the meeting, in the role of Obama’s national-security adviser, was Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University political scientist who advised the State Department during the Clinton and Obama administrations. In opening the discussion, he compared the Iran situation with the Cuban missile crisis—America’s nuclear standoff with Russia in 1962. “Our predecessors in the Kennedy administration … had their own pressures in time, with their own huge stakes. Yet they were careful and creative and shrewd,” he said. “We want to do at least as well, if not better.”

Pollack, in his memo to the team, -wanted answers to several questions, including: Should the U.S. join the attack or stay out? What should Washington do to protect Israel from reprisals? And, if the administration decided to hang back, what actions by Iran could essentially press Obama into war in the region—America’s third in 11 years?

Principals Committee meetings often start with assessments by intelligence directors. In ours, Kerr, as the CIA chief, predicted worse things to come: Iran would likely step up its attacks on Israel, and, viewing Washington as implicitly involved, could try indirectly to strike at American targets as well. The easiest ones might involve U.S. troops in western Afghanistan or in Iraq. In both cases Iran would likely operate through proxies, keeping its fingerprints off the operations. Kerr, who in real life helped manage the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan in 1990, said the administration should also brace for Iranian cyberattacks, another way for Tehran to lash out at Washington from behind a wall of anonymity. “They will be very cautious about a direct confrontation with the United States, but there are a number of things … they might be able to do,” he said.

In what could easily cause shock waves to the world economy, Kerr also warned about Iranian attacks on ships in the Persian Gulf. (Some 20 percent of oil traded worldwide flows from the Gulf out through the Straits of Hormuz.) “I don’t think they’ll try to close the Gulf, but they can make the Gulf a difficult place to operate in, and raise the cost for everybody,” he said.

McLaughlin, in the role of director of National Intelligence, said street protests in the Muslim world could precipitate the kind of violence that killed four Americans in Libya last month, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Not everyone agreed. Kerr estimated that the Gulf countries would be happy to see Tehran cowed and that Sunni Muslims would not come out for Shia Iran. But McLaughlin pointed out that the ouster of autocrats across the region in the past two years meant the Muslim street was less predictable. “When the street would get a little wild, Mubarak would send out his henchman and would take care of it,” he said, referring to the former Egyptian president. “That doesn’t exist anymore.”

The assessments helped frame a main quandary of the discussion: how to scale back the tension without signaling to Iran that the U.S. was weak or hesitant, a message that might tempt Iran to actually escalate the violence; and how to put distance between the U.S. and Israel, which explicitly defied Obama in launching the operation, without emboldening Iran and, again, potentially raising the flames.

Pickering, as secretary of state, outlined a plan to protect Americans, including locking down U.S. embassies in the region and calling on U.S. citizens to leave Muslim countries at once. The panelist with perhaps the most direct experience in the region, Pickering had served as the ambassador to Israel and Jordan and represented the U.S. at the United Nations. Others around the table discussed how the U.S. would respond if Iranian speed boats attacked American ships in the Gulf. “They can cause a huge tanker to go down, or hit one of our ships and cause us to lose 100 or more Americans in a minute,” remarked Bing West, in the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He said the military didn’t like the idea of waiting around to be attacked and would rather take the initiative—essentially proposing the U.S. attack Iran preemptively. “If you’re going to say you’re going to defend your citizens, you’re going to defend your forces … then the military is telling you, you need to do that by operational offense, not defense.”

West proposed a 10-day military campaign to neutralize much of Iran’s offensive capability. Others ruled out such an operation for the time being but agreed that an Iranian attack on an American ship would trigger a broad military response against Iran’s Navy. “We have multiple ways of taking on their assets,” said Rudy deLeon, in the role of defense secretary. Podesta, as Obama’s chief of staff, asked lightheartedly if the uranium–enrichment plant at Fordow was part of the Iranian Navy. In other words, he wanted to know if the U.S. would see an Iranian provocation as an opportunity to destroy those parts of Iran’s nuclear program still standing after the Israeli attack. The question raised chuckles, but Podesta predicted later in the discussion that an escalation would likely result in American strikes on Iran’s remaining nuclear facilities.

Witches brew: Iranian scientists processing uranium at a facility south of Tehran. (Reuters-Landov)

So, while the team would urge Obama to focus on de-escalation, it was also acknowledging that much depended on Iran’s actions after the Israeli operation. An Iranian attack on American targets would inevitably lead the U.S. to war.

The participants had some disagreements over how to deal with Israel—no surprise there, given the Obama administration’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. DeLeon said the U.S. should be ready to resupply Israel with whatever weapons it needed. (The U.S. maintains depots of reserve munitions in Israel and can make them available to Netanyahu on short notice.) He also suggested the U.S. tender to help rescue the Israeli pilot whose plane crashed in Iranian territory—an offer other panelists felt was imprudent.

DeLeon and Podesta argued for a firm statement of support for Israel and its security. “We need to be clear on the security relationship with Israel,” deLeon said. “Even if we’re angry [with Netanyahu], we need to show we have their back.” But Pickering said the U.S. should be careful not to include words that Israel would construe as a blank check for further military action. He advocated a more subtle message emphasizing that de-escalation was in Israel’s interests. “You don’t say, ‘Israel can do anything it wants and we’ll continue to support them and there is no red line.’?”

Their differences aside, the panelists agreed any Iranian reprisal that killed large numbers of Israelis would trigger American military action against Iran—and, again, put the U.S. on a possible path to war. “That Rubicon would be presented to us if the Israelis suffer massive casualties,” McLaughlin said.

In perhaps the most startling remark of the meeting, McLaughlin estimated there was a 10 percent risk Iran would use chemical weapons against Israel in response to Operation Whirlwind, assuming it could mount chemical warheads on its medium-range missiles. In that case, he said, the administration had to take into account the possibility that Israel might launch nuclear weapons at Iran. (Israel is thought to have an arsenal of at least 200 nuclear warheads, though its policy is to neither admit nor deny it.) “I think the Israelis would then have to say, ‘Do we stay conventional?’ And that’s almost unthinkable. But they would have to ask that question.”

A consensus was starting to form around five objectives that Obama should aim to achieve: protecting U.S. citizens, avoiding participation in another war, preventing tremors to the world economy, keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and protecting Israel and other U.S. allies from Iranian reprisals. Jentleson, the national-security adviser, pointed out that some objectives might come into conflict with others and suggested the participants prioritize them. Pickering put protecting U.S. citizens at the top and defending Israel at the bottom, though he said objectives two through five were all closely ranked. “If you’re conveying it in a proper fashion, you put the first one across the top and put each one [of the rest] in a box underneath,” he said. The conversation drifted elsewhere before the others could offer their own prioritizing.

Several participants voiced concern that the Israeli assault would, perversely, undermine Washington’s ability to keep Iran from getting the bomb. They estimated that Tehran would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) after the attack and expel international observers from their facilities—something Iranian leaders might have been looking for an excuse to do. “I think there’s a chance this is a gift to the Iranians,” McLaughlin said, describing the Israeli operation as a possible “get-out-of-the-NPT-free card” for Iran. Without the observers, the U.S. would have a harder time determining what Iran was doing at Fordow, Natanz, and the other sites, and, specifically, at what level it was enriching uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons. On top of that, given international anger at Israel over the attack, the broad weave of international sanctions against Iran that Washington has pulled together over the past year would likely fray. “We have to avoid the rapid unraveling of sanctions,” Podesta said.

Sometime near the end of the meeting, West offered a catalog of probabilities for the situation the U.S. now faced. He estimated the chances of Israeli deaths in the Iranian retaliation at 100 percent and the likelihood that Israel would strike back at Iran at 50 percent. The odds that the Arab street would erupt were somewhere around 50 or 60 percent, West said, which meant that the risk of “terrorists killing Americans are pretty gosh-darn high.” Those conclusions led West to ponder the chances that the U.S. would end up using lethal force against Iran. “And after listening to the conversation all morning, I put it at … 50–50, it’s almost a coin toss,” he said. DeLeon’s response: “I think it’s higher.” Pickering: “I agree.”

How closely did the discussion resemble an authentic Principals Committee meeting? Kerr told me in an email later that the simulation took him back to the administration of George H.W. Bush, when advisers had to guide the president through such crises as the invasion of Kuwait or the coup attempt against Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev. Other participants said it felt genuine with one caveat: in real-life meetings, intelligence analysts might not allow themselves to be so opinionated.

I wondered whether the weight of the pending election would not have asserted itself more directly on the discussion, given how high the stakes were for the president.

Obama is in the final lap of a tight race against Mitt Romney, and though his poll numbers have risen in recent weeks the precariousness of a war or a major foreign crisis could cut his lead overnight. The immediate knockoff effects on the economy (a spike in oil prices, a tremor in world markets) would do further damage. When I asked presidential historians about other commanders in chief who faced wars or major security crises late in their terms, they pointed to three: Harry Truman (the Korean War), Jimmy Carter (the Iran hostage crisis), and George W. Bush (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). All three left office with the lowest approval ratings of any president in the modern era (Truman at 32 percent, Carter and Bush at 34 percent).

Jentleson addressed the issue of the election head on, conceding early in the meeting that political considerations were unavoidable. “We know what the date is, we know what the calendar says,” he told the panel. “My sense is that our role is to be politically pragmatic enough not to make recommendations that even we know are politically impossible,” he said, insinuating perhaps that Obama could not realistically turn his back on Netanyahu, no matter how angry the attack made him.

Several analysts I spoke to said that type of discussion would likely come up in smaller forums, between the president and his political advisers, not at a Principals Committee meeting. One Washington insider told me that’s where more hard-nosed considerations might be factored. “You could imagine Obama saying to one or two people that if the imminent election forces him to clean up Netanyahu’s mess, he wouldn’t forget who made the mess,” he said. But Podesta instructed the panelists to ignore the electoral clock. “I think the president will want everyone to be absolutely clear there are no politics in this situation,” he said at the meeting. “There’s going to be an inevitable discussion in the media about what the political effect of whatever we’re going to do is. We just have to largely try to ignore it.”

No matter what role politics play, the upshot of the simulation is a sobering one: Washington could quickly lose control of events after an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. If Iran attacks Americans or goes after Israel too aggressively, even an administration wishing to avoid another war in the Middle East might find itself in the middle of one.

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