Gaming Iran scenarios; a Kobayashi Maru test?

David Ignatius is one of the most respected Middle East hands in the press corps. He has  worked in many countries in the region and has, in my opinion, usually a realistic outlook on what American interests are.

Ignatius was allowed to observe an exercise at Harvard involving some former heavy hitters at state and the White House that gamed out various Iran scenarios that are likely to occur over the next few months and what he saw didn't encourage him.

Writing in the Washington Post, Ignatius was trying to keep score:

My scorecard had Team Iran as the winner and Team America as the loser. The U.S. team -- unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war -- concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence. The Iranian team wound up with Russia and China as its diplomatic protectors. And the Israeli team ended in a sharp break with Washington.

Mind you, this was just an exercise. But it revealed some important real-life dynamics -- and the inability of any diplomatic strategy, so far, to stop the Iranian nuclear push.

The simulation was organized by Graham Allison, the head of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. It was animated by the key players: Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state, as President Obama; and Dore Gold, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. They agreed to let me use their names in this summary.

The gamers framed their strategies realistically: Obama's America wants to avoid war, which means restraining Israel; Iran wants to continue its nuclear program, even as it dickers over a deal to enrich uranium outside its borders, such as the one floated in Geneva in October; Israel doesn't trust America to stop Iran and is looking for help from the Gulf Arab countries and Europe.

Is this a "no win" scenario - the famous Star Trek test for cadets named the Kobayashi Maru test? In this case, we lose if Iran gets the bomb. The only victory I could imagine would be some kind of regime change but that is so much the pipe dream it shouldn't be considered. We also lose if we have a public break with Israel or if we force Russia and China into even a cozier relationship with the mullahs than they have now. All of this is predicated on the notion that Obama will not attack and that he will do everything he can to try and prevent Israel from doing so.

No, Obama will not attack. The Iranians, Russians, and Chinese know this as do our allies. What I found fascinating in this exercise was the open break foreseen between Israel and the US - or, more specifically, Obama and Netanyahu. I have read several analysts who believe that if such a break were to occur, the chances for a general middle east war become better than 50-50. Israel's enemies may seek to take advantage of our break with the Jewish state while the Israelis may not feel any constraints in trying to solve a few problems that have been confronting them with regard to Syria, Hezb'allah, and the Palestinians.

Ignatius was not optimistic:

What worried me most about this game is what worries me in real life: There is a "fog of diplomacy," comparable to Clausewitz's famous fog of war. Players aren't always clear on what's really happening; they misread or ignore signals sent by others; they take actions that have unintended and sometimes devastating consequences.

The simulated world of December 2010 looks ragged and dangerous. If the real players truly mean to contain Iran and stop it from getting the bomb, they need to avoid the snares that were so evident in the Harvard game.

Sounds like August, 1914 to me but that is almost certainly an oversimplification. The point Ignatius is trying to make is that this scenario has the potential to spin out of control into a  very serious crisis.

And in charge, we have a naive, inexperienced president who is confused about American vital interests and hasn't a clue what the ramifications of a break with Israel would mean.

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