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Furnish: the Dome of the Rock or the Iron Dome?

Monday, December 16th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — introducing a significant post by Tim Furnish re Israel’s safety, Iran and more ]

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (Picturesque Palestine, 1881, left) and the Israeli Iron Dome missile defence system (contemporary, right)


Our occasional guest-blogger and friend Dr Timothy Furnish has a new post up at his MahdiWatch blog that I’d like to bring to your attention.

Here’s his closing paragraph, containing (a) an observation comparing the “end times” significance of Syria and Jerusalem vs Mecca and Medina, (b) a corresponding hint to security analysts, and (c) the implication that Iranian nukes would likely not be used against Jerusalem, since the Noble Sanctuary / Temple Mount with its two great mosques is altogether too important in Islamic eschatological terms to be put at risk…

Muslim eschatological fervor is boiling over in nearby Syria, as I analyzed on this site in September, 2013. The extent to which Muslims in Israel are aware of, and inflamed by, this is unknown; what is known is that Damascus and Jersualem are much more prominent in Islamic traditions (both Sunni and Shi`i) about the coming of the Mahdi and the subsequent eschatological events than are Mecca and Medina. Therefore, it would behoove Western geopolitical and intelligence analysts—both in and out of government—to put some effort into studying this topic, rather than relegating it to the theater of the absurd or myopically obsessing over what Evangelical Christians think about the end of the world. I would also add that the historical eschatological significance of Jersualem to Muslims is a major argument against the thesis that the Iranian regime wants nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel (I have already argued at length elsewhere that this charge little accords with Twelver Shi`i doctrines): Islam’s third-holiest site is that religion’s most important eschatological locale, and no one is more respectful of such traditions than the ayatollahs in Qom and Tehran. Thus, if al-Quds is nuked or even contaminated with fall-out from a bomb on Tel Aviv, the Mahdi and Allah will not only be displeased but unable to stage the eschatological denouement. The presence of the Domes of the Rock and Chain in Jerusalem is thus, in my studied opinion, an even greater deterrent to Islamic nuclear attack on that city than is Israel’s more prosaic Iron Dome anti-missile system.

To read the whole thing, go to Domes of the Rock and Chain v. A Dome of Iron: Which Best Protects Israel from Islamic Attack?

Clever title, that — and a must-read post.


As a mild reinforcement to Tim Furnish’s point, I’m going to drop in here a part of an earlier ZP post of mine, including two quotes on the close kinship between the Kaaba in Mecca and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, as constituting in some sense the book-ends both of world history and of the history of Islam considered as the final revelation.


As I’ve noted before, al-Aqsa isn’t just the focal point of the Palestinian / Israeli question, nor it is only the place at which the Prophet alighted from his steed, Buraq, and ascended to receive the divine instructions for prayer in the Miraj — it is also the destination of the Mahdi‘s victorious army in the Khorasan strand of ahadith.

Indeed, it has been suggested that the Pierced Rock of the Dome of the Rock in al-Aqsa is closely related to the Black Stone of the Kaaba. Kanan Makiya, in his part-fictional part-documentary book, The Rock, quotes Charles Matthews‘ translation of Burhan al-Din ibn Firka al-Fazari‘s Kitab Ba’ith al-Nufus ila Ziyarat al-Quds al-Mahrus (The Book of Arousing Souls to Visit Jerusalem’s Holy Walls) from Matthews’ Palestine: Mohammedan Holy Land:

Verily, the Kaaba is in an equivalent position to the Frequented House in the Seventh Heaven, to which the angels of Allah make pilgrimage. And if rocks fell from it, they would have fallen on the place of the Rock of the Temple of Mecca [i.e. the Black Stone]. And indeed, Paradise is in the Seventh Heaven in an equivalent position to the Holy Temple (in Jerusalem) and the Rock; and if a rock had fallen from it, it would have fallen upon the place of the Rock there. And for this case the city is called Urushalim, and Paradise is called Dar al-Salam, the House of Peace.

Indeed, David Roxburgh mentions all these matters, writing in Salma Khadra Jayyusi et al., The city in the Islamic world, vol. 1. p 756:

This movement corresponded to other efforts — before, during, and after the Crusades — to establish “geo-theological” connections between Jerusalem and Mecca, whose preeminent sanctity was inviolable up until the end of days. Examples linking Mecca to Jerusalem include the Prophet Muhammad’s nocturnal journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (isra) and his ascension from Jerusalem to the throne of God (miraj); the underground joining of the waters of Zamzam to Silwan (var. Siloam) during the “feast of the sacrifice” (id al-adha); and the transfer of the Kaba and its black stone from Mecca to Jerusalem during the last days. these various traditions linked Jerusalem to Mecca, sometimes by sets of doubled features, in a near symmetry and in a calendar that will culminate during the end of days.

So there’s an eschatological dimension to all these parallelisms, too…

Fireworks: guns as dual-purpose devices?

Friday, March 15th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the merest trifle — concerning things that go flash and bang, with potentially lethal consequences ]

It’s exuberance, exhilaration, it’s celebration, it’s party time. It’s dangerous and stupid like the man says, and it’s unfortunate when your neighbors just happen to bear the brunt of it. It’s also pretty much human nature, in some places it’s how you celebrate your daughter’s wedding…

For your contemplative consideration:


here’s the video to which the tweet in the upper panel above refers:


The quote in the lower panel comes from a New York Times Magazine article today, Is This Where the Third Intifada Will Start?

Describing Ahmed al-Jabari, with a side of traffic patterns

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — this began with two quotes about the killing of Ahmed al-Jabari and ended up reminding me of traffic flows ]

So very much depends on nuance, doesn’t it? There are, after all, one-way streets and two-way streets:

Surely there’s more nuance in describing al-Jabari as “the man responsible both for the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and his release a year ago” than as “directly responsible for the deaths of many Israelis and for the abduction of the soldier Gilad Shalit”.


Does that mean that abducting Gilad Shalit and releasing Gilad Shalit cancel each other out?

In my opinion, not.

But if in this case, (x) plus (-x) does not equal 0, it’s because that “plus” doesn’t represent an addition, it represents an incarceration — one in which Shalit himself was “cared for” under Jabari’s instructions, according to Gershon Baskin in his own NYT piece, Israel’s Shortsighted Assassination

No, Mr. Jabari was not a man of peace; he didn’t believe in peace with Israel and refused to have any direct contact with Israeli leaders and even nonofficials like me. My indirect dealings with Mr. Jabari were handled through my Hamas counterpart, Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of Hamas, who had received Mr. Jabari’s authorization to deal directly with me. Since Mr. Jabari took over the military wing of Hamas, the only Israeli who spoke with him directly was Mr. Shalit, who was escorted out of Gaza by Mr. Jabari himself. (It is important to recall that Mr. Jabari not only abducted Mr. Shalit, but he also kept him alive and ensured that he was cared for during his captivity.)

Cared for, maybe — but still incarcerated.

In street terms, there are times when a multi-lane two-way street gets divided so that perhaps three lanes go one way and only one the other — when, in moral terms, there’s no moral equivalency, but still some truth, some justice on both sides. That’s the sort of situation that calls for even more nuance… some of which, to my mind, Baskin provides with what is essentially a “no, but” formulation — no, Jabari was not a man of peace, but, it is important to recall…


Look, I think the ability to envision flow patterns is one of the keys to understanding complicated and complex situations — and graphics does a better job of it than linear thinking. Contraflow lane reversal is an interesting example:

Credit: Matthew Hausknecht et al., Dynamic Lane Reversal in Traffic Management

Neither General Gordon nor the Mahdi lived to see this one:

The White Nile Bridge connecting Khartoum, Sudan and Omdurman, with 4 lanes total. Traffic is generally directed equally, 2 lanes to Khartoum and to lanes from except in the morning, where it’s 3 lanes towards Khartoum, and in the evening, 3 lanes towards Omdurman.


Of course, you don’t want your efforts to make an unexpected Dynamic Lane Reversal and blow back on you.

Credit: Blowback contraflow by Charles Cameron, h/t Matthew Hausknecht et al

But that at least seemed to be James Zogby‘s concern, when he wrote:

One can only wonder whether when the Israelis made the decision to assassinate Ahmed al Jabari they were foolish enough to assume that their attack would be the end of it. Having been down this same road before, where assassinations only led to escalation and then full-scale hostilities, one might have hoped that someone in the Israeli high command would have recalled 2008 or 2006 (and so many other tragic, bloody episodes in the past) and cautioned that “no good will come of this.” When I heard an Israeli Ambassador tonight saying that “we must finish them off, so we can sit with moderates and talk peace,” it became all too clear that no lesson had been learned.


I sometimes wonder whether maybe outcomes are above the human pay grade.

Striking Iran: Two Games and a World – Pt 2

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

[ 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?


Striking Iran: Two Games and a World – Pt 1

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

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




We suppose we can game the world.

It may in fact be the best thing we can do, or the only thing: we guess, guesstimate, estimate the possible outcomes of an act or series of acts — and somehow in there, we hope to match the major trends in the complexity we seek to understand with selected complexities of our own that we build into our games.

And yet as Richard Danzig noted in the opening paragraph of his Driving in the Dark: Ten Propositions About Prediction and National Security which I quoted here yesterday, “whereas routine, short-term predictions are generally right, strategic judgments about future environments are often, one might say predictably, wrong.”

So we have knee-jerk responses, which can suitably be expressed in barks or sound-bites, and we have deliberative inquiry, which requires suitably nuanced exegesis. And our games and simulations are attempts at the deliberative approach.


The chess board:

So the question of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is once again in the air, and we would like to be able to peer as far down the chess-board as a Kasparov, computing the counter-move an adversary would make against a friend’s counter-move to the adversaries response to an initial move. Sadly, though, we all too often find ourselves in the bind that a senior US official in Iraq described to Anthony Cordesman a while back, where our best efforts at gaming the situation are “like playing three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you.”

Except that my own version of the board may be more accurate:

it’s more like an n-dimensional spider’s web, with multiple gravities, tugs, and tensions – and some of those tensions are in the category of known unknowns that one of your predecessors talked about, some of them unknown unknowns, and some of them literally unknowable – hidden in the hearts of more devious men than you, and known only to God.


So, anyway, we game things out as best we can.

And since the idea of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities has been in the news of late, so have two attempts to “game” that particular possibility and its sequelae.

What interests me here is not the outcomes envisioned – but the inherent differences between the two games. Let’s take a look.


Persian Incursion.

As Michael Peck — he splashed Persian Incursion into our consciousness with one post on Foreign Policy and another on Danger Room last week, not to mention an interview on NPR – puts it:

Persian Incursion is basically two games in one. There is a highly detailed military game of a seven-day Israeli air offensive in which Israel plans and executes its strikes while the Iranian air defenses try to stop them. But there is also a political game that unlocks the military aspect. Persian Incursion assumes that an Israeli attack is only possible if one of Iran’s neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or a U.S.-influenced Iraq — either publicly or tacitly allows Israeli entry into its airspace for the strike on Iran. (The rules state that though Israel could chance an initial airstrike without an agreement, it would need permission for follow-up attacks.) With that in mind, the game comes with various starting scenarios, such as a super-radical Iran that scares its neighbors into allowing Israeli access, or Turkish support for an Israeli strike (note that the game came out in 2010, before the current Israeli-Turkish spat).

Here’s how Clash of Arms, the publisher, describes the game packet:

Persian Incursion provides comprehensive and detailed information on:

• Orders of battle for the Israeli and Iranian Air Forces and the Iranian Air Defense Force
• Analysis of the Iranian nuclear and oil infrastructure
• Iranian ballistic missiles and Israeli ballistic missile defenses
• Target folders for Iranian nuclear facilities, oil terminals and refineries, and airfields
• Variable starting conditions


• Rulebook; Briefing Package and Target folders;
• 17 x 22″ Full color map;
• Short Deck of “Super Cards” (4.25 x 6″);
• 2 Full decks of playing cards (110 cards);
• Cardboard counters;
• Box and dice.

Now I am absolutely not the guy you want to ask about the game-play, or about the game’s possible implications for policy analysis. Michael Peck may well be that guy, but even he doesn’t leave the game with a clear sense of how things might play out in real time:

The real question of this exercise, however, is whether an Israeli strike on Iran is a good or bad idea. Persian Incursion’s answer is an unqualified “maybe.” Israel can’t stop Iran from retaliating with missile attacks and terrorism. But it also can’t guarantee complete destruction of Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps most importantly, the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war.

And when you get granular, “public opinion” turns out to mean the interwoven opinions of many, many and diverse people — some influential, some easily influenced, some whose world-view features a rigorous scientism, some a potentially wrathful deity – all of whom are themselves beset by a myriad of doubts, certainties, hopes, fears, bouts of toothache and who knows what else…

Modeling even one of those minds (and associated hearts) would be quite a trick…

So. That’s the “reference library” approach, to use Peck’s term:

Persian Incursion isn’t a novel — it’s a reference library inside a game. The background information included is staggering. Besides the rules book, there is a target folder and a briefing booklet listing the precise dimensions of Iranian nuclear facilities down to the meter…

The gamer has what we’ll assume is a highly accurate representation of the materiel side of things. Morale, at the granular level of a Netanyahu or a Khamenei?

Who can game the workings of a single human mind (and heart)?

[continued in Pt 2]

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