Saturday, December 05, 2009

In Harvard war game, Iran doubles its LEU stock in 2010

Apparently a lot of famous names have gamed out US diplomatic options over the next year and failed, in the game, to prevent Iran from continuing its enrichment program. Several things strike me about the article.
The two key players [Dore Gold as Israel and Nick Burns as US Pres. Obama]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."
I obviously underestimate the difficulty of restraining Israel. Failing to give the US friend-or-foe codes makes Israeli transit across US-controlled airspace impossible. Yet in the game, somehow it seems that Burns was able to accomplish this supposedly difficult feat. Burns likes the idea of Israel having a regional nuclear monopoly. It seems to me that most of the difficulty of "restraining Israel" is the difficulty of accepting Israel losing that monopoly. I'm sure a game has been played either here of elsewhere that involved an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and I'm sure that did not preserve Israel's nuclear monopoly.

More importantly, Burns' strategy, which I suspect is similar to his preference coming in and likely matches much of the thinking in the White House, is to "wear down the Iranians over time". I don't see much hope of the strategy working, but the US is free to attempt it. If 2010 to 2018 are as difficult for Iran as 1980 to 1988, I expect Iran to come out intact, having successfully broken Israel's nuclear monopoly and having Israel, the rest of the region and the rest of the world come to terms with an Iranian unpreventable nuclear weapons capability.

Gary Sick played Iran.
"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.
That's basically the point that I expect to reach. Iran may be more aggressive than Sick was playing, meaning increasing its LEU production earlier and by a larger extent if sanctions come, even unilateral sanctions from the US. Iran is not, in real life, starting out thinking it is playing a weak hand.

I don't know if there is a better alternative available to the United States, something like a preventable weapons capacity - meaning Iran's centrifuges and stock of LEU are not dispersed and moved to hardened locations but Iran continues to enrich at a lower rate and exports LEU under some pretext to keep its uranium stock beneath some negotiated level in exchange for lifting some sanctions and pulling back support for anti-Iranian organizations.

Long term Iran is going to want a weapons capability that it is confident would survive a US attack, but possibly that outcome could be postponed beyond Obama's terms in office in some agreement. I'm not sure either side would go for something like that though.

I think the result of this game is about what we're going to see. Possibly a little more LEU in Iran than Gary Sick's Iran produced.


Lysander said...

I've been thinking about your writing about Iran obtaining a rapid breakout capability. I agree with you but there is a key point to recognize. To truly have a "Japan Option," it is not enough to simply have the means to enrich rapidly. Japan actually has weapons grade plutonium-lots of it. Presumably, it is not all in one place. And it is foolish to assume that the IAEA knows about all of it. Were Japan to have a 'minor' violoation of the NPT...well there are rules for the good countries and rules for the bad ones.

Iran cannot pursue such an option and remain in the NPT. Japan need only attach its plutonium to a detonator. Iran will have to create the weapons grade uranium.

Your point is still a valid one, but I do think that is a significant difference between Iran and Japan. I had not thought of it before now.

Arnold Evans said...

Japan has a much more thorough nuclear capability than Iran. You would not believe that I've read arguments that Japan does not have a "Japan option" and that Iran's program is somehow more suited for a weapon that Japan's.

But while Japan is more nuclear capable, I think Iran is effectively nuclear capable now, and if it is not, will clearly be by the time the US is in a stable enough position in either Afghanistan or Iraq to risk confrontation with Iran.

In a crisis, when the US gets the impression, for whatever reason, that Iran is about to build a weapon, it will destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. We know that and Iran plans for that.

The question is, after the attack, will US generals be able to tell the President that they are nearly certain that Iran will not be able to retaliate with a nuclear response in the next 18 months.

Let's say that by some US miracle, in 20 years we have pro-US strongmen stably in control of Iraq and Afghanistan and now the US wants to mass troops on Iran's borders as it did Iraq in 2002/2003.

Iran will be under the NPT, but the US either will not know the full extent of Iran's potential nuclear program or parts will be in sites that are somewhat effectively protected against attack.

Before massing troops, the US will strike Iran's nuclear program, but will US generals be able to say there is an acceptable risk that Iran will not be able to use a nuclear weapon that causes thousands of US killed in action in one day before the invasion has had time to start?

By today, all nuclear weapons are virtual. I think it is by far most likely that nuclear weapons will not be used in the next 100 years.

But Iran has already achieved the state that the US would not be able to invade Iran, even if it had stable pro-US rulers in the bordering states and had time to rebuild the army. After bombing, the US today would be somewhat certain that it neutralized the resources Iran could use to make a weapon, but not certain enough.

Three years from now, at the current pace, the US will be relatively certain that enough nuclear resources would survive an attack that a nuclear retaliation would have to be planned for.

In an important way, that is similar to Japan. If China was to attack Japan, putting the US to the side in this scenario, it could get most of Japans' nuclear stock, but there would be an unacceptable chance that quietly 6 months later Beijing would be lost

If the US was to attack Iran, there is an unacceptable chance that quietly, in 14 or 18 months, a bomb would destroy a large US base in Iraq.

An unacceptable chance is all Iran or Japan needs to have a virtual weapon that will never be used, but that will still change its rivals' calculations in their favor.

Lysander said...

Thanx Arnold. A flaw in the Harvard war games just occurred to me. The U.S. and Israel were played by characters (Burns and Gold) who knew their respective countries well, served in high positions in government their governments, and are in a position to know how policy makers think in each country.

Iran was played by Gary Sick. Nothing against Mr Sick, but he has to guess what Iran's thinking is and has to rely on western assessments of its capabilities and limitations. He also sees it through a prism of western (mis)information. Also, the first two are very familiar with domestic politics in their own countries and how that will impact decision making. Sick will likely make a poor estimation of these things in Iran.

While the first two can give an accurate assessment of how their countries would act, Mr Sick is only guesstimating about Iran.

I'm curious how the game would turn out if Harvard brought in an Iranian dissident of some stature to play Iran.

Anonymous said...

This game was fundamentally flawed in its assumptions and frankly, a bit silly.

First, the US emphatically does not want to avoid war in Iran. On the contrary, it is building up to an eventual and planned war by positioning assets that effectively surrounds Iran in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This explains the furious military base building going on in both countries. The present stated mission in Afghanistan is the thinnest and most transparent sort of ruse that characters of the stature of the Harvard gamers should easily be able to see through. The clear goal is to have military bases and equipment in place for an Iranian multi-front war. The target is clearly domination of the Caspian Sea basin down through Iran... and its oil. China, Russia, India and Western Europe can easily see this as well. As such, the whole “nuclear Iran” issue is a sidebar at most and a red herring at worst to the forces actually driving the impending war. A quick look at the positioning of US military bases in Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Turkmenistan tells the entire story. Iran is ringed by US military bases.

Second, the wild card in the ME is not Iran, but rather Israel. Israel is the only nuclear power in the ME and it has amply demonstrated a willingness to use weapons of this type. A nuclear Iran would, in fact, balance this threat to ME peace…if, in fact, peace was what the US wanted in the ME which it clearly does not want given the history of the last few decades. Further, Israel is militarily meta-stable, in that while it has the ability to project a large blast of force over a short period of time, it would be soundly defeated in a prolonged war against the Muslim world if they ever were able to organize themselves. They are incredibly vulnerable militarily with only a doomsday defense.

Third, Israel exists both politically and militarily only through the continued support of the US and they know this. They will not act unilaterally. To the US, Israel serves a very useful purpose in that it is a convenient lightening rod that serves to obscure the actual playing field and divide attention from the actual objectives. Israel will be thrown the bone of continued military support and a blind eye regarding the Palestinian issue if they continue to play attack dog for us. Casting Netanyahu as anything other than a blustering and sputtering lapdog is just plain silly. He will say his lines on cue and both get on and get off the stage according to the script, make no mistake.

Third, Obama is likely only at the periphery of this in that this has been in motion for a much longer time- look at the history and read the tea leaves of the present continous buildup. He is incredibly weak politically and is a weak man generally and is not a key player, so casting him as a central player is an incredible reach and for the purposes of this game, unrealistic.

Fourth, Russia is the big loser in this in that solidification of the US military in this region drastically weakens their position in this area. This will bother them much more than conventional thinking.

So watch for continued US build up in Iraq and Afghanistan under the flag of fighting terrorism. Then watch for US build up in the bases in Pakistan and Turkey. Shortly followed by the announcement of cooperation of Pakistan and the US and Turkey and the US. This is the bowstring being drawn back. Then watch Russia positioning troops and material toward the north end of the Caspian Sea. The war will start with a false flag attack on the US by Iranian “terrorists”. It will involve tactical nukes.

Anonymous said...

i agree w. anon, above. The entire war on terror has a significant geopolitical component for eurasian involvement by US forces with an eye to Iran. Zbigniew Brzezinski actually wrote about this very goal (US dominance in Eurasia) in 1997. No doubt it is US Policy. Viewed in that context, the US is at the VERY PEAK of its power today. THe Pinnacle of its unipolar moment. It is involved in both sides of paired disputes from Japan-China, all the way to UK-Germany/France.

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