Matt Dunham/Associated Press
Published: March 19, 2012
WASHINGTON — A classified war simulation held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.
The officials said the so-called war game was not designed as a rehearsal for American military action — and they emphasized that the exercise’s results were not the only possible outcome of a real-world conflict.
But the game has raised fears among top American planners that it may be impossible to preclude American involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran, the officials said. In the debate among policy makers over the consequences of any Israeli attack, that reaction may give stronger voice to those in the White House, Pentagon and intelligence community who have warned that a strike could prove perilous for the United States.
The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.
The two-week war game, called Internal Look, played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by carrying out its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The initial Israeli attack was assessed to have set back the Iranian nuclear program by roughly a year, and the subsequent American strikes did not slow the Iranian nuclear program by more than an additional two years. However, other Pentagon planners have said that America’s arsenal of long-range bombers, refueling aircraft and precision missiles could do far more damage to the Iranian nuclear program — if President Obama were to decide on a full-scale retaliation.
The exercise was designed specifically to test internal military communications and coordination among battle staffs in the Pentagon; in Tampa, Fla., where the headquarters of the Central Command is located; and in the Persian Gulf in the aftermath of an Israeli strike. But the exercise was written to assess a pressing, potential, real-world situation.
In the end, the war game reinforced to military officials the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of a strike by Israel, and a counterstrike by Iran, the officials said.
American and Israeli intelligence services broadly agree on the progress Iran has made to enrich uranium. But they disagree on how much time there would be to prevent Iran from building a weapon if leaders in Tehran decided to go ahead with one.
With the Israelis saying publicly that the window to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb is closing, American officials see an Israeli attack on Iran within the next year as a possibility. They have said privately that they believe that Israel would probably give the United States little or no warning should Israeli officials make the decision to strike Iranian nuclear sites.
Officials said that, under the chain of events in the war game, Iran believed that Israel and the United States were partners in any strike against Iranian nuclear sites and therefore considered American military forces in the Persian Gulf as complicit in the attack. Iranian jets chased Israeli warplanes after the attack, and Iranians launched missiles at an American warship in the Persian Gulf, viewed as an act of war that allowed an American retaliation.
Internal Look has long been one of Central Command’s most significant planning exercises, and is carried out about twice a year to assess how the headquarters, its staff and command posts in the region would respond to various real-world situations.
Over the years, it has been used to prepare for various wars in the Middle East. According to the defense Web site GlobalSecurity.org, military planners during the cold war used Internal Look to prepare for a move by the Soviet Union to seize Iranian oil fields. The American war plan at the time called for the Pentagon to march nearly six Army divisions north from the Persian Gulf to the Zagros Mountains of Iran to blunt a Soviet attack.
In December 2002, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who was the top officer at Central Command, used Internal Look to test the readiness of his units for the coming invasion of Iraq.
Many experts have predicted that Iran would try to carefully manage the escalation after an Israeli first strike in order to avoid giving the United States a rationale for attacking with its far superior forces. Thus, it might use proxies to set off car bombs in world capitals or funnel high explosives to insurgents in Afghanistan to attack American and NATO troops.
While using surrogates might, in the end, not be enough to hide Iran’s instigation of these attacks, the government in Tehran could at least publicly deny all responsibility.
Some military specialists in the United States and in Israel who have assessed the potential ramifications of an Israeli attack believe that the last thing Iran would want is a full-scale war on its territory. Thus, they argue that Iran would not directly strike American military targets, whether warships in the Persian Gulf or bases in the region.
Their analysis, however, also includes the broad caveat that it is impossible to know the internal thinking of the senior Iranian leadership, and is informed by the awareness that even the most detailed war games cannot predict how nations and their leaders will react in the heat of conflict.
Yet these specialists continue their work, saying that any insight on how the Iranians will react to an attack will help determine whether the Israelis carry out a strike — and what the American position will be if they do.
Israeli intelligence estimates, backed by academic studies, have cast doubt on the widespread assumption that a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would set off a catastrophic set of events like a regional conflagration, widespread acts of terrorism and sky-high oil prices.
“A war is no picnic,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio in November. But if Israel feels itself forced into action, the retaliation would be bearable, he said. “There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.”
A version of this article appeared in print on March 20, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Simulation Forecasts Perils Of Strike At Iran.