The spring newsletter from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government reports on a simulation game played in late November 2009. The game’s purpose was to “illuminate the possible evolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis over the next year,” and the players were high-ranking current and former government officials and scholars. The result: Iran won.
Gary Sick, the Iran team leader and former Carter-era National Security Council member, was surprised. “We started out thinking we were playing a weak hand, but by the end, everyone was negotiating for us,” he told The Washington Post. But results like this should surprise no one. The strategic premises of the exercise were: Iran wants to continue its nuclear program; Israel wants to stop Iran’s nuclear program; and the United States wants to avoid conflict. These assumptions closely mirror reality and point to why the United States is increasingly unable to influence events. Conflict avoidance is not a strategy; it is institutionalized weakness.
U.S. policy holds that Iran will not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran doesn’t feel it needs Washington’s permission. Nuclear weapons represent the ultimate insurance card against regime change, will give Iran unprecedented leverage in the Middle East, and potentially will enable Tehran to assume an offensive posture against its enemies, including America, the “Great Satan.”
The U.S. government is signaling to Tehran that Washington lacks the will to respond should Iran develop and test a nuclear weapon. This was made painfully clear by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who recently said that an Iranian bomb is “potentially a very, very destabilizing outcome” but taking military action to prevent it “also has a very, very destabilizing outcome.” Equivocations like this instruct Tehran to continue on its current course because the United States can’t tell the difference between a world with a nuclear Iran and a world without one.
Dore Gold, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, played the role of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the war game at Harvard. “The game made it clear to me that the U.S. is going from a policy designed to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons to an approach that accepts the possibility that it will have nuclear weapons and to deter it from using them,” he observed. In fact, deterrence already is working, but America is the country being deterred.