Paul Bracken examines what might happen if Iran gets the bomb, as revealed through war-gaming:
The game might begin with a seemingly familiar train of events, not unlike what has unfolded this week in the Middle East: The Shiite militant group Hezbollah kidnaps Israeli soldiers. Israel hits back with airstrikes on villages in Lebanon believed to be Hezbollah ammunition dumps. The West Bank and Gaza flare up, and Hezbollah begins firing long-range missiles into Haifa and Tel Aviv. The weapons come from Iran, and there are even Iranian “advisers” with them.
But then the tempo of the game slows down. Everyone notices caution, even hesitation, in the Israel team. The Israelis refrain from airstrikes on Syria (Hezbollah’s other key patron), and the Israeli navy backs off from the Lebanon-Syria coast for fear of losing a ship. If a ship were lost, Israel would have to escalate, and that is the heart of the matter: Escalation in a nuclear context isn’t like escalation in earlier conflicts without the bomb.
Israel knows how to escalate in a conventional war or against an intifada or insurgency. But this is different. The conflict is no longer about how much pain to inflict before the other side gives up. It is about risk. An unwanted spiral of escalation might drive the game in a very bad direction.
The Israel team considers firing a demonstration nuclear shot, a missile warhead that would explode 100,000 feet over Tehran. Israeli plans since the 1970s have called for doing this as a last-ditch alternative to firing all-out atomic attacks. The blast would shatter windows in downtown Tehran, but it wouldn’t kill anyone, or hardly anyone. Surely it would shock Iran into a cease-fire.
But before that can happen, Iran ups the ante by declaring a full nuclear alert. Rockets on truck launchers are flushed from their peacetime storage bases, along with hundreds of conventionally armed rockets and shorter-range missiles that can hit U.S. bases throughout the Middle East.
The Iran side in this game has given a great deal of thought to the political uses of its primitive nuclear arsenal. A few of its nuclear missiles are in hardened, underground silos. These are for quick-reaction firing, ready to launch on short notice. Mobile missiles can take hours to move and set up. Iran also understands the psychology of its enemies. The West does not want to kill millions of innocent people, so the Iran team places some mobile missiles in city parks in Tehran, Esfahan and Mashhad. Camouflage nets are placed over many parts of these cities to conceal the missiles and to mislead American satellites.
To bring attention to their dire situation, the Israel team orders two Jericho missiles to go on alert. They are timed to move to their launch positions just as the U.S. satellites are passing overhead. The intent, obviously, is to shock the White House. “We hope it leaks to the media, too, maybe we should make sure it does,” one member of the Israel team says.
Israel’s move forces a U.S. decision.