Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2018.10.30

A third gulf war? Unlikely but ...

the japan times on October 23, 2018

Are the United States and Iran headed for a direct military confrontation? The Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS), a Tokyo-based independent think tank where I direct its foreign policy/national security shop, conducted a 24-hour policy simulation (or so-called war game) last weekend over a contingency in the gulf region.

Some 40 participants -- incumbent government officials, regional experts, scholars of international studies, businesspersons and journalists -- gathered Saturday morning and each played his/her role as officials or reporters of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the U.S., Russia, China and Japan. I am profoundly grateful to their intellectual contribution to the war game in which they performed so realistically that the outcome of the simulation became something worth examining. Although CIGS will eventually publish a more detailed report on this event, here I wish to share with readers my take on the game.

Before that, I must confess something. I, probably for the last time, played the role of a simulation controller. A controller must not only organize and supervise the game process but also draft and finalize a scenario and produce imaginary news video clips, which we call "MHK News," to show the participants during the 24-hour simulation.

I never liked this job, because our war game scenarios have been often denied or even surpassed by the developments in the real world. This time, unfortunately, was no exception.

On the very morning we started the game, the government of Saudi Arabia finally issued a statement that Jamal Khashoggi had died accidentally. Thanks to them, two participants, incumbent bureaucrats who were supposed to be my simulation co-controllers, could not come to the game. No use crying over spilled milk, I sighed. The following are the highlights of the event, which took place during CIGS's 29th policy simulation since its foundation in 2009.

First, the Saudi team was requested to finalize a report on the death of Khashoggi, in which the crown prince stated that, expressing deep condolences, he regretted the incident and arrested 30 more officials. The U.S. team was silent probably because the situation deteriorated in the Middle East.

Iran's top-secret plan to enrich uranium was revealed while a Saudi fighter jet was downed in Yemen. Then Iran deployed mid-range ballistic missiles in southern Iraq and a group of Saudi Shiite dissidents took over an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia's eastern province, taking many non-Saudi hostages including Chinese and Japanese citizens.

An Islamic revolution took place in a small gulf kingdom and so did unidentified drone attacks against the Saudi Royal household in Riyadh. Finally, a reckless frontline unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps advanced and captured an Israeli unit in the Golan Heights while the Iranian Navy attacked U.S. vessels on the Gulf waters.

After issuing ultimatums, Washington declared that the U.S. forces attacked and destroyed Iranian military facilities in the coastal area, while Israel stated that they attacked Iranian bases between Golan and Damascus. Oh, I know pundits may say, "That is almost unconceivable and will never happen."

I agree, and they may be right, simply because Iran and the U.S./Israel have been under a delicate but effective deterrence and, therefore, a direct serious military confrontation may not easily take place. Having said that, I learned a lot from last week's policy simulation and the following are my seven points for connotations.

1. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are inseparable. Despite the current difficulties, the U.S. cannot discard Saudi Arabia. In the simulation game, the Saudi team succeeded in surviving the scandal by taking advantage of contingencies in the Middle East. However, nobody knows if they can do the same in the real world of the 21st century.

2. A coup/revolution is difficult to intervene with. In the war game, there was a coup/Islamic revolution in a small kingdom. The dissidents claimed that they will introduce democracy to their land while allowing the presence of U.S. forces there. I also played the role of a dissident in the game and learned that it is not always easy for the U.S. forces to interfere with domestic politics there, especially when it is a democratic change of government.

3. A blockade of the Strait of Hormuz is not an option. Although the IRGC commander threatened the Arab Gulf states and the international community with a possible blockade of the strait, the Iran team never even thought about the blockade. This is because such a closure of the strait would only lead to a U.S. Navy blockade of Iran, halting the oil and gas tankers bound for and coming from Iranian ports. Iran knows such a move would be only suicidal.

4. A U.S. president running wild is unstoppable. The participant who played the role of President Donald Trump on the U.S. team lamented that it was not easy for the advisers of his administration to pursue U.S. national interests. He also recalled that it was extremely difficult for them to stop the president and correct his mistakes once military actions are taken.

5. Israel does whatever possible to survive. A small nation like Israel undoubtedly has the right to invent, practice and implement all conceivable and unconceivable ideas and tricks to survive the turmoil in the Middle East.

6. Russia and China aim to divert U.S. attentions. The two major powers do not and cannot seek hegemony in the Middle East and especially in the Gulf region. What they wish is for Beijing to make the U.S. involved in and preoccupied with the Middle East and to divert U.S. attentions from China. Likewise, Moscow, at least in this game, had a similar objective.

7. Japan is still out of the loop. In every past policy simulation featuring the Middle East, Japan has been always "out of the loop," heavily focused on domestic political battles. To those who would criticize the Japanese government for "being out of the loop" in the next Mideast crisis, you are kindly advised to speak out for amending the existing national security laws.