If Israel Attacks Iran

By Ephron, Dan | Newsweek, October 15, 2012 | Go to article overview

If Israel Attacks Iran


Ephron, Dan, Newsweek


Byline: Dan Ephron

Will America get pulled into another Mideast war? Newsweek hosted a 'war game' with former U.S. officials to find out.

It's 5 in the morning when the phone rings at the beachfront home of Dan Shapiro, the American ambassador to Israel. On the line is Rafi Barak, the head of Israel's foreign ministry, sounding tense. Israel has struck six Iranian nuclear facilities overnight,

causing extensive damage, he says. Israeli's foreign minister will soon be calling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with details.

Thirty minutes later, Shapiro and a team from the U.S. Embassy that includes the military attache and the CIA station chief arrive at Israel's Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv for a briefing. Operation Whirlwind, they're told, involved dozens of Israeli warplanes; covert landings in Ethiopia, India, and Saudi Arabia; and a complicated choreography of electronic jammings and midair refuelings. One Israeli plane went down during the offensive, but the rest of the operation, a huge undertaking for Israel, went off cleanly.

In Washington, President Obama's national-security adviser quickly convenes a meeting of top aides and cabinet secretaries. The president is on the campaign trail, but he wants his team to discuss the crisis and make recommendations by noon. Early in the discussion the advisers rule out American military action, for now at least, and agree that Washington's aim is to lower the flames in the region. "The goal of short-term policy should be not to escalate, to try to contain this," one of them says. In their memo to the president, they list the administration's top objectives, including protecting Americans in the region, minimizing the impact on the world economy, and defending Israel from Iranian reprisals.

But as the discussion winds on, the scenarios in which America finds itself dragged into the conflict seem to multiply. By the end of the meeting, one participant puts the odds at 50 percent of the U.S. having to use military force against Iran in the aftermath of Israel's assault. Others suggest it's even higher. "We could be at the front end of a major escalation to a Mideast war," one of the advisers observes.

An Israeli attack on Iran would present the United States with one of the most complicated and vexing situations the country has faced in decades. The scenario outlined above--the outcome of a recent simulation conducted by Newsweek--offers one version of how events might play out. The simulation, known among military planners as a "war game," aimed to understand what factors would shape the decision-making in the Obama administration. Specifically we wanted to know: what would happen if the Israelis strike before the U.S. election in November?

Although in recent weeks it has looked like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is backing away from an attack, an October surprise cannot be ruled out. In some ways, the perception that an Israeli operation is no longer imminent makes the coming weeks a more appealing window for Netanyahu to order military action. "The hour is getting late," the Israeli leader told the United Nations General Assembly in September. "Very late."

As part of the war game, Newsweek convened seven former political and military officials and staged a mock meeting of the "Principals Committee"--the team the president calls on for recommendations about matters of the highest importance. Assuming the roles of Obama's key advisers, including his chief of staff, his national security adviser, secretaries of state and defense, directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the panel was roughly analogous to the group Obama consulted before ordering the operation against Osama bin Laden last year.

Former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Mideast Policy, prepared detailed briefing papers on the Israeli attack, during which Israeli strikes knocked out some facilities but left other key parts operational. …

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