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Striking Iran: Two Games and a World – Pt 2

[ by Charles Cameron board game and board-room simulation of an Israeli strike on Iran ]



[graphic & headline from the New York Times]

[continuing from part I]


Osiraq Redux

Karim Sadjadpour described a very different style of game in Foreign Policy just one day after Michael Peck’s description of Persian Incursion. It was conducted by the Brookings Saban Center, and also written up by Kenneth Pollack in the Center’s Middle East Memo of February 2010, and by David Sanger at the New York Times.

Here is Pollack’s description of the structure of the Brookings game:

The simulation was conducted as a three-move game with three separate country teams. One team represented a hypothetical American National Security Council, a second team represented a hypothetical Israeli cabinet, and a third team represented a hypothetical Iranian Supreme National Security Council.

As a scholar of religion, I would be tempted to add, after the manner of the Athanasian Creed, “Yet there are not three hypotheticals but one hypothetical.”


The U.S. team consisted of approximately ten members, all of whom had served in senior positions in the U.S. government and U.S. military. The Israel team consisted of a half dozen American experts on Israel with close ties to Israeli decision-makers, and who, in some cases, had spent considerable time in Israel. Some members of the Israel team had also served in the U.S. government. The Iran team consisted of a half-dozen American experts on Iran, some of whom had lived and/or traveled extensively in Iran, are of Iranian extraction, and/or had served in the U.S. government with responsibility for Iran.

This game begins with an Israeli strike – that is to say, the strike itself is not what is gamed here: the game is designed to be “a day-long simulation of the diplomatic and military fallout that could result from an Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear program.” Again, I will not rehearse nor comment in much detail on what has been reported of play, both in Pollack’s official Brookings report on the game and in Sadjadpour’s account, noting only that the Brookings game features a response from Hizbollah which (as Michael Peck noted) was lacking in the board game.


Differences of style

What interests me is the difference in style between the two games, the two approaches:

  • The emphasis on the initial strike in Persian Incursion focuses that game more tightly on questions of materiel and logistics, while the Brookings game naturally puts greater emphasis on the responses of individuals and groups. And I’d suggest that the structures of the two games in some sense parallels that distinction:
  • The board game is played by two players, typically experienced grognards, wargame hobbyists or designers, often with military backgrounds. Their skill is in decision-making in the context of such games, and Larry Bond has provided them with an exhaustively-researched briefing on the issues he considered salient.
  • The board-room sim is played by a couple of dozen players, each of them already possessing their own highly detailed “takes” on the specific aspects of the game their voices will “represent”.

One might say that Persian Incursion is an entertainment and the Brookings game a high-level albeit informal strategic deliberation — but that comparison fails to account for the detailed research that has gone into PI — and the Harpoon gaming system which underlies it. Both games are serious attempts, at the limit of human imagination, to figure out — to “game” — one specific, now perhaps looming, future.

Taking both games with equal seriousness, then, we can say that both players of PI have Larry Bond and his two associates (in the form of those booklets, maps, target specs and so forth) as their intel resources, whereas the Brookings game features the combined (cooperating and competing) intelligences of the two dozen or so participants.  That’s not quite crowdsourcing, as is the Naval Postgraduate School‘s ongoing MMOWGLI anti-piracy game, but it is polyphonicit allows and attends to a variety of voices…

Of course, if those various voices are selected in such a way that they form too much of a “choir” or “chorus” this advantage is diminished: there’s no great benefit to hearing a dozen or two versions of group-think. And while the individual voices in a group may in fact propose usefully distinct ideas, there’s always the possibility that some key factor or factors will be overlooked, because a single world-view is operating where a true polyphony would require a deeper and richer diversity.

Is Persian Incursion more practical, having a greater emphasis on actual force projection? Is Osiraq Redux more realistic, having a wider set of expertises to draw on?


Omnium gatherum

For the sake of completeness, I should mention that a game not unlike the Brookings game of 2009 was played by a similarly qualified group at the behest of the Atlantic magazine in 2004, as reported by James Fallows. I was particularly intrigued by this piece because Mike Mazaar, with whom I once collaborated briefly, was playing SecDef.

What I’d hope for from ZP’s readers would be some discussion of these two different approaches to gaming, and of gaming itself– along with scenario planning — as a means of exploring possible futures where the impact downstream may be considerable.

The piece of the puzzle that I fear may be missing from both games, as those who know me will have guessed, is the potential influence of messianism — from the Israeli / Judaic, the U.S. / Christian Zionist, and the Iranian / Mahdist sides. But then I generally expect the seriousness of millennial aspirations to be discounted, and try to keep track of those things accordingly myself.

Three puzzle pieces that I would find relevant would be:

(i) the Ayatollah Khamenei‘s fatwa “that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons”;

(ii) Timothy Furnish‘s observation:

The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued the Fatwa My own study of both geopolitics and of Shi`i traditions on the 12th Imam leads me to conclude that the clerical regime does NOT believe in nuking Israel (or anyone else), because while the Mahdi will return at a time of great violence and upheaval, there is no Shi`i teaching that creating such bloodshed would induce Allah to send him. Also, I think the ayatollahs are crazy like foxes, not literally crazy-and they know full-well what would be the Israeli (and perhaps American ) response to any use of nuclear weapons against Israel. The Mahdi would not be happy to return and rule over a radioactive wasteland..

For more detail, see also Furnish’s A Western View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearizing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal?

and (iii) Benjamin Netanyahu‘s statement in opening the Knesset:

Our policy is guided by two main principles: the first is “if someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first,” and the second is “if anyone harms us, his blood is on his own hands.”

The first is “im ba l’hargekha, hashkem l’hargo” — a well-worn phrase that can be found in the Talmud and derives from Exodus; I’m unsure whether the second — “If anyone harms us, his blood is on his own hands” — comes from a Talmudic source, or whether it is an abbreviated restatement of Ezekiel 33 1-9.


Some trivia for good measure…

As Michael Peck points out, the game’s graphic designers write Persian Incursion using a faux-Devanagari script more properly associated with Sanskrit and Hindu sources than Iranian Shi’ism…a minor pity, that.

And ha! — I’m left wondering whether the title, Persian Incursion, came to Larry Bond or his crew out of the ethers — or whether someone had been watching…


Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Season 5, Episode 39?


5 Responses to “Striking Iran: Two Games and a World – Pt 2”

  1. joey Says:

    I suppose the difference between the two examples is simple enough, one is a game, a technical exercise, where war is acted out in card strengths and with a built in balance.The second is a simulation which however imperfect attempts to model human reactions to events in the light of potential effects.  I used to play axis and allies with my brothers, a world war 2 simulation, although enjoyable, and even after considerable Modding of the rules, the system was arbitrarily and unrealistic.  We also played Diplomacy,  it modeled Europe before the Great War.  Each person played a power, each power jockied for position.All moves happened at the sometime, it was only then you found out who had lied during the negotiation phase.  There were no dice,  no randomness.  Its was far more satisfying.  

  2. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hi Charles –
    On that fatwa against nuclear weapons: it just doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. I haven’t looked today, but I have previously, as have others, and it’s not on the interwebs, or seemingly anywhere else.
    I agree that it’s an important part of the entire situation, if it exists. One would want to know how far its influence goes in the Iranian government and among the Iranian public.
    Conversely, one might want to know why it’s so unavailable. Was it the view of one person, removed by others? Politically unsound for other reasons?

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Cheryl:
    My response got long and unwieldy, so I’ve made it into a separate post: Striking Iran – response to Cheryl.

  4. Marc Says:

    Well the video is not loading good here. Is it because i’m on Chrome browser ?

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    That’s just a screen capture, not a video. Looks like you can view it here.


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