Sunday, the New York Times released a speculative report on Iran’s Islamic leaders not pressing ahead with creating nuclear weapons. Today, the Times reported on the alleged outcome of a USCENTCOM planning exercise, Internal Look, involving a possible Israeli surprise attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The message conveyed in this Times article is in the headline: “U.S. War Game Sees Perils of Israeli Strike Against Iran”. Note the consequences of this war game exercise attributed to Marine General James Mattis, USCENTCOM commander:
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.
According to Global Security.org, the USCENTCOM Internal Look 1990 exercise anticipated US war plans for Gulf War I. That exercise was based on a Soviet era seizure of Iran’s oil fields and deployment of six US divisions via Iran’s Zagros Mountains to counter Russian forces unleashed from Azerbaijan and the former Central Asian SSRs. These Joint Chiefs of Staffs sponsored USCENTCOM command post exercises are conducted biennially to test:
real-world contingency plan. Its operational concept is focused on joint battle staff war fighting at the strategic and operational level. The primary training audience is CENTCOM's combatant commander and the USCENTCOM headquarters staff. The secondary training audience is composed of CENTCOM service and functional component commanders, their staffs and selected allied forces
The Internal Look 2012 war game was designed to assess whether the US would be dragged into a conflict with Iran via an Israeli “surprise attack” on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This despite the Times supposition of purported convergence of US and Israeli intelligence that Iran’s Supreme Ruler Khamanei has not given the authorization to assemble nuclear weapons, a big if.
Note some of the veiled assumptions in this latest Times speculative assessment:
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.
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.
[. . .]
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.
The 2012 Internal Look exercise appears to use a scenario out of the playbook from the Tanker War of 1987-1988. A US vessel in the Fifth Fleet gets hit with shore to ship missiles from Iran in the Persian Gulf causing several hundred US casualties. Israel is the culprit as the alleged exercise assumes no early warning from Jerusalem leaving little time for the US Fifth Fleet to exit the Gulf. The Iranian missile attack on the Fifth Fleet naval vessel in the Internal Look exercise is the causus belli for the US to undertake its own retaliatory attack on Iranian forces and nuclear facilities. The USCENTCOM war game exercise outcome allegedly has the US second strike setting back the Islamic Republic a few more years then the one year Israel gains from for its pre-emptive attack. Further, there is the suggestion that Iran would unleash retaliation against Israel via its proxies, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and Syria. Assuming in Syria’s case that Assad's forces are not still pre-occupied with crushing opposition. Perhaps Syria’s counter insurgency program would involve Russian advice and assistance given revelations about Russian spesnatz units delivered to the Mediterranean naval base at Tartarus via a Fleet Tanker with the Islamic name for a higher level of faith, Iman.
As we noted in our Iconoclast post about Iran’s saber rattling in late 2011 about closing the Straits of Hormuz, “Does Iran want to Repeat the Tanker War of the 1980s?”
Could that happen again? Assuming the Obama Administration wanted to avoid a casus belli by the Islamic Republic against the Arab oil producers from Iraq, Kuwait, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and then . . . the US Navy could “line the straits’ with combat vessels. Further the US could conduct intensive aerial patrols from the Carrier Task Force positioned there. The Fifth fleet also has missile boats, presumably equipped with both conventional and nuclear missiles. Not unlike the Tanker War of the late 1980’s, there would be Seal and Small Boat Teams and night stalker helicopters available for special operations. However, given the Islamic Republic’s nuclear and missile programs, there could be other types of missions launched.
[. . .]
However, both the Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Khamanei, and President Ahmadinejad, persevere in their attempts to produce nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. That has given Israel’s defense establishment great and well-justified anxiety, for the brand of Shi'a Islam devoutly believed in by Iran's rulers would leave them unlikely to be deterred. They are not akin to rational Soviet leaders, but more like Hitler and the Nazis who, even if the war was lost, and even if it meant the certain and total destruction of Nazi Germany, had they had nuclear weapons, would certainly have used them.
Is the 2012 CENTCOM Internal Look war game the Obama Administration’s answer warning Israel not to unleash a unilateral pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? If it is, then unlike Internal Look 1990, used for the successful Gulf War I playbook, the US may not be as prepared for what the Israelis believe might happen.