In 1981 Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor because it could not live with the chance the country would get nuclear weapons capability. In 2007 it wiped out a North Korean-built reactor in Syria. In 2008 the Israelis asked the Bush administration for the equipment and overflight rights they might need some day to strike Iran’s nuclear sites.
They were turned down, but the question remained: Would Israel take the risk of a strike? And if so, what would follow?
The US government’s simulations are classified, but the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution created its own in December. Here is what happened:
1. ISRAEL ATTACKS
Without telling the US, Israel strikes at six of Iran’s most critical nuclear facilities, using a refueling base hastily set up in the Saudi Arabian desert without Saudi knowledge. Already-tense relations between the White House and Israel worsen rapidly, but the lack of advance notice allows Washington to truthfully say it had not condoned the attack.
2. U.S. STEPS IN
In a series of angry exchanges, the U.S. demands that Israel cease its attacks, though some in Washington view the moment as an opportunity to further weaken the Iranian government, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Telling Israel it has made a mess, Washington essentially instructs the country to sit in a corner while the United States tries to clean things up.
3. US SENDS WEAPONS
While calling for restraint, the US deploys more Patriot antimissile batteries and Aegis cruisers around the region, as a warning to Iran not to retaliate. White House advisers warn against being sucked into the conflict, believing Israel’s real strategy is to lure the US into finishing the job on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
4. IRAN STRIKES BACK
Iran fires missiles at Israel, including at the Israeli nuclear weapons complex at Dimona. Damage and casualties are minimal. Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, fire rockets into Israel.
Believing it has achieved its main goal of setting back Iran’s nukes by years, Israel barely responds.
5. IRAN SEES OPPORTUNITIES
Iran, while wounded, sees opportunities to unify its people - and crush its opposition parties - on nationalistic grounds. Its strategy: mount low-level attacks on Israel and portray the US as a paper tiger - unable to control its ally and unwilling to respond to Iran.
Convinced the Saudis colluded with the Israelis, and emboldened by the passive US response, Iran fires missiles at the Saudi Abqaiq oil export processing centre, and tries to incite Saudi Shias against the regime.
Iran also conducts terror attacks against Europe, hoping governments there will turn on Israel and the US.
6. IRAN AVOIDS US TARGETS
Iran’s leadership, though divided, decides against directly attacking US targets - to avoid full-scale US retaliation.
7. STRIFEIN ISRAEL
Critics in Israel say the country’s leaders, by failing to respond to even Iran’s weak response, have weakened the credibility of its deterrence. Hezbollah fires 100 rockets a day into north Israel.
This paralyses Israel’s economy with a third of its people living in shelters. Israeli officials urge US intervention.
8. ISRAEL FIRES BACK
Israel wins US acquiescence to retaliate against Hezbollah. Orders a 48-hour campaign by air and special forces against Lebanon.
Prepares for a much larger air and ground operation.
9. IRAN PLAYS THE OIL CARD
Knowing its ultimate weapon is sending oil prices sky high, Iran decides to attack Dhahran, a Saudi oil industry centre, with conventional missiles. Begins mining Straits of Hormuz. A US tanker and minesweeper are damaged. The price of oil spikes temporarily.
10. U.S. BOOSTS FORCES
Unable to sit on the sidelines while oil supplies and US forces are threatened, Washington massively reinforces its military presence in the Persian Gulf. It has been eight days since the first strike.
The game ends. The trends: the US was leaning toward destroying all Iranian air, ground and sea targets in and around Straits of Hormuz, and that Iran’s forces were about to suffer a significant defeat. Debate breaks out over how much Iran’s nuclear program was crippled and whether the country had secret backup facilities that could be running in just a year or two.
Who won? Washington and Jerusalem measured success differently. US officials believed setting the Iranian program back a few years was not worth the huge cost. Israelis felt even a few years delay was worthwhile. Israelis argued the crisis undercut a fragile regime. Most Americans thought this a pipe dream.