Iranian nukes: a deadly serious game

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — How will the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program evolve during the next year? If a simulation game played at Harvard last week is any guide, the situation won’t look pretty: Iran will be closer to having the bomb and America will fail to obtain tough U.N. sanctions; diplomatic relations with Russia, China and Europe will be strained; and Israel will be threatening unilateral military action.

My scorecard had Team Iran as the winner and Team America as the loser. The U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence. The Iranian team wound up with Russia and China as its diplomatic protectors. And the Israeli team ended in a sharp break with Washington.

Mind you, this was just an exercise. But it revealed some important real-life dynamics — and the inability of any diplomatic strategy, so far, to stop the Iranian nuclear push.

The simulation was organized by Graham Allison, the head of the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. It was animated by the key players: Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state, as President Barack Obama; and Dore Gold, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. They agreed to let me use their names in this summary.

The gamers framed their strategies realistically: Obama’s America wants to avoid war, which means restraining Israel; Iran wants to continue its nuclear program, even as it dickers over a deal to enrich uranium outside its borders, such as the one floated in Geneva in October; Israel doesn’t trust America to stop Iran, and is looking for help from the Gulf Arab countries and Europe.

The Obama team was confounded by congressional demands for unilateral U.S. sanctions against companies involved in Iran’s energy sector. This shot at Iran ended up backfiring, since some of the key companies were from Russia and China — the very nations whose support the U.S. needs for strong U.N. sanctions. The Russians and Chinese were so offended that they began negotiating with Tehran behind America’s back.

“We started out thinking we were playing a weak hand, but by the end, everyone was negotiating for us,” said the leader of the Iranian team, Columbia University professor Gary Sick. By the December 2010 hypothetical endpoint, Iran had doubled its supply of low-enriched uranium and was pushing ahead with weaponization.

The trickiest problem for our imaginary Obama was his relationship with the fictive Netanyahu. As Burns and Gold played these roles, they had two sharp exchanges in which America asked for assurances that Israel wouldn’t attack Iran without U.S. permission. The Israeli prime minister, as played by Gold, refused to make that pledge, insisting that Israel alone must decide how to protect its security. Whereupon Burns’ president warned that if Israel did strike, contrary to U.S. interests, Washington might publicly denounce the attack — producing an open break as in the 1956 Suez crisis.

The two key players agreed later that the simulation highlighted real tensions that the two countries need to understand better. “The most difficult problem we have is how to restrain Israel,” said Burns. “My own view is that we need to play for a long-term solution, avoid a third war in the greater Middle East and wear down the Iranians over time.”

Gold said the game clarified for him a worrying difference of opinion between U.S. and Israeli leaders: “The U.S. is moving away from preventing a nuclear Iran to containing a nuclear Iran — with deterrence based on the Cold War experience. That became clear in the simulation. Israel, in contrast, still believes a nuclear Iran must be prevented.”

The game showed that diplomacy will become much harder next year. As Burns explains: “The U.S. probably will get no help from Russia and China, Iran will be divided and immobile, Europe will be weak, and the U.S. may have to restrain Israel.”

What worried me most about this game is what worries me in real life: There is a “fog of diplomacy,” comparable to Clausewitz’s famous fog of war. Players aren’t always clear what’s really happening; they misread or ignore signals sent by others; they take actions that have unintended and sometimes devastating consequences.

The simulated world of December 2010 looks ragged and dangerous. If the real players truly mean to contain Iran and stop it from getting the bomb, they need to avoid the snares that were so evident in the Harvard game.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is

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