Over the past three months, several prominent American think tanks and academic institutions have conducted simulation games about the Iranian crisis. Although these war games have nicely covered almost all facets of the problem, they have left one aspect mostly understudied: the nature of Iran's response to a U.S. or Israeli airstrike. I recently took part in two U.S. government-sponsored games in which the participants attempted to provide a modest assessment of that crucial issue.
War simulation games are certainly not a new invention in government practice. Indeed, the history of strategy and that of simulation are inseparable. Ever since men formed armies and thought of ways to outfox their enemies, simulation has been an integral part of military planning. The art of simulation was perfected during the Cold War, but once the Soviet Union fell, it experienced a lull. Today, as the United States faces the Iranian nuclear challenge, simulation is back in business.
The simulations in which I participated began with the premise that the U.S. president, having exhausted all diplomatic strategies, had just made the tough decision to employ military force against Iran, with the chief objective of destroying or at least seriously damaging the country's key nuclear-power centers. With this hypothetical scenario in mind, the participants tried to assess the Iranian response to a limited U.S. airstrike. Driving this assessment was the assumption that though the U.S. intelligence community possesses some knowledge about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC's) retaliatory capabilities, it has no clue as to how the IRGC would choose to respond.
So we laid out three fairly basic scenarios. First, no response: Iran absorbs the hit and uses it to play the role of victim before the international community and reap whatever diplomatic benefits. Second, a symbolic, limited response: Iran fires back in peripheral theaters such as Lebanon/Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan, perhaps launching in tandem a terrorist campaign against U.S. interests at home or abroad, all for the purpose of saving face and preserving some of its deterrent posture and defiant image. Third, a full-on response: Tehran makes use of all its retaliatory tools, possibly leading to an all-out, strategic confrontation with the United States and Israel.
Each scenario had its group of backers. Those predicting the first scenario were few, but their voices were loud. Just like U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who asserted during the Cuban missile crisis that the Soviets would do "nothing" in response to a U.S. airstrike, these analysts argued that Iran's mullahs, who prize the regime's survival above all else, would not risk their own necks by retaliating.
The majority of participants backed the second scenario. The thought was that, though Iran would do its utmost to avoid an all-out war with the United States, the political costs of holding fire would be too great. For a leadership that prides itself on being the vanguard of Islamic resistance against the "evil West," inaction or ineptitude would be ridiculed at home, make a mockery of its deterrence posture, and lead to domestic political upheaval.
The third scenario -- all-out war -- though remote, has led strategic planners inside the Pentagon to work day and night, participants with inside knowledge said.
To understand whether the regime would actually make such a suicidal move requires an incisive understanding of the Iranian leadership's mindset. Unfortunately, there are two important challenges to Washington's effort to read Tehran. First, though U.S. intelligence on Iran is slowly improving, it remains severely lacking. Americans barely know how Iran functions in peaceful times, let alone how it would respond to an external threat it might perceive as existential.