The bottom line: The game showed how easy it was for each side to misread the other's signals. And these players were separated by a mere corridor in a Washington think tank, rather than half a world away.
There was another exercise in Washington last week that involved Iran, the U.S. and the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program. The Brookings Institution staged a war game. No real weapons were used, but teams playing the roles of U.S. and Iranian policymakers were presented with a hypothetical but not very far-fetched scenario, and the results were not encouraging. Kenneth Pollack is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and he ran this exercise and joins us. Good to see you again.
Very good to be back.
First, you're not identifying the people who took part in the game, but can you at least describe what kind of people they were?
Sure. On the American side, we brought together of about a dozen former very senior American officials, people who have actually occupied the roles in reality that they were asked to play in the game. On the Iranian side, it was a little bit different. We obviously don't have access to, honest to goodness, former Iranian policymakers. So what we had to do there was rely on Iranian-American and American experts on Iran, a number of whom had some experience in the U.S. government, but obviously somewhat different from our American team.
They are presented with this scenario that you wrote, which included cyber attacks, assassinations of scientists, and it escalated from there. When you wrote all of this, did you write it in a way that you thought it was at least possible that diplomacy might prevail over threats of war?
Absolutely. The idea was to test some basic hypotheses about where the United States and Iran might be going. And we allowed for the scenario to move in any of several dozen different directions, some of which were entirely pacific, some were entirely bellicose and others that were a mix of the two. And some of the interesting things that came out of the game were that there were some key moments were if one team or the other had done something slightly differently, according to the other team, they would've had a peaceful response instead of what actually happened.
So take us back to a moment last week during this game, you as the facilitator of the entire exercise and watching it. What's a moment when you can see the slippery slope has just gotten a lot more slippery?
One of the most remarkable moments for me, one of the moments where I felt like, boy, this game is now headed irretrievably into war, was when the Iranians are debating what to do after the American initial move.The game starts with a terrorist attack, an Iranian terrorist attack that gets too out of hand, too big. The United States decides to respond, and one of the things the United States decides to do is to hit a remote Iranian Revolutionary Guards' facility. And the Americans were hoping that the Iranians would see this as a minimal American response.
It was the least they would do, yeah.
Exactly. Literally the least the American people would accept. The Iranian saw it as the Americans crossing a red line. And the Iranian team also decided that having repeatedly said that if the United States hits Iran, we will close the Strait of Hormuz, they felt compelled to then do something in the Strait of Hormuz. Now according to the American team, if the Iranians had done anything else ~ and the Iranian team came up with a series of responses ~ everything else they did would've produced a peaceful American response thereafter. But the Iranian moves in the Strait of Hormuz were what pushed the Americans higher up on the escalation ladder.
Well, was the end of the game, I mean, we're talking about the last scene of "Dr. Strangelove?" I mean, was the world about to be incinerated? How bad was the end of it all?
The end of the game ~ and, of course, the end of the game was a ~ it's always a bad place to stop, was pretty bad. The Americans were about to launch a massive military operation against Iran. The only question was whether it was obliterating all of Iran's coastal defenses, air defenses, surface-to-air missile batteries, navy, et cetera, or whether it was going to be all that and the Iranian nuclear program. And the Iran team had already thought this through and decided that if that was what the United States is going to do, they were going to fight on in their words forever.And so the game ends with the first big American military moves. And it's unfortunate because, of course, the real problems with a war with Iran are not that first big American moves, they're what follows. They're how do you turn off a war with Iran? How do you bring it to a close? How do you stop them?
Ken Pollack, thank you very much for talking with us.
Thanks so much for having me back.
Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, ran the war game we've been hearing about at Brookings last week.