Inside Track: Next year in Tehran

For the past three years the central war game of the U.S. armed forces has been centered on Iran. But what exactly will await them there, even they do not purport to know.

Amir Oren


Tishrei 17, 5765

Six divisional task forces of the U.S. armed forces, subordinate to three corps commands arrive simultaneously from six different directions; two airborne expeditionary forces (combat wings, transport, command and control, intelligence, refueling); five aircraft carriers at a distance of up to 1,500 kilometers from their northernmost targets; three Special Forces battalions - all struck at Iran and pushed to seize its capital city.

The Iranians sent a far larger ground force into action against them, consisting of 15-17 corps commands, suffering blatantly from air inferiority but trained to use drones against the invader, along with missiles and weapons of mass destruction (most likely chemical and biological, not nuclear. The fighting centered on Tehran, where the Americans were out to topple the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was 30 days away from installing a nuclear warhead on a surface-to-surface missile, whose range included American targets.

It is on the basis of this scenario that, for the past three years, the central war game of the U.S. armed forces has been conducted, under the codename Unified Quest, or UQ for short. The stages of the game continue throughout the year and it reaches its peak in one feverish week in May, at the War College in Carlyle, Pennsylvania.

There was no point trying to hide the Iranian background to the event, in which a large number of officers and civilians take part - more than 500 every year - including observers from foreign countries (Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Turkey, Australia and Israel, too), from the State Department and the Department of Interior, from the CIA and the FBI, and from organizations such as Medecins sans Frontieres (Physicians Without Borders), which this year sent a delegation of physicians. Indeed, not only did the Pentagon forgo any attempt to keep the event secret, it tried to play up the Iranian aspect. The enemy state was called "Nair," and for the mentally challenged it was explained that this is a fictional state on the basis of the geography and culture of Iran.

Officially, there is no direct connection between the doctrinal, organization and operational ideas that the command of the integrated forces and the land arm are putting into practice in Unified Quest - similar war games are held under the auspices of the air force, the navy and the marines - and the decisions that will be placed on the president's desk, for him to make with his exclusive authority, when the time comes. In practice, there is no differentiating between the insights that are achieved in the war game and what the Pentagon will prepare for the president's authorization. The one small difference is between a war game and a war that will be no game.

Other headaches

Just as the American presence in Afghanistan did not prevent the incursion into Iraq, so it will not prevent an operation in Iran, either. A hint in this direction can also be found in the innovation that has been introduced into the next exercise in the UQ series. The games of 2002-2004 dealt with three scenarios, of which the Iranian scenario was only one, albeit the most important of the three.

Alongside it Washington had to deal with two other headaches, one an underground revolt in "Sumasia" (Sumatra / Indonesia), the other terrorism in the American homeland. The Israeli representative was assigned to help rehabilitate battle-torn Sumasia and not in the activity in Nair, perhaps in order to ward off in advance allegations about joint American-Israeli planning against Iran.

Now the Sumasi scenario, which has been fully played out, has been set aside, and the 2005 UQ exercise, which will be played in May 2005, though the preparations begin this month, will focus on "Nair." That is the immediate mission, and to bridge the gaps that were revealed in the previous exercises will require the massing of all the forces.

It turns out that even as the eyes of the world are on the collision course between Iran's thrust for nuclear arms and the international community, which is imploring Tehran to stop and is hinting that there will be those (Americans, Israelis) who will not balk at a preemptive strike against the nuclear facilities in Iran, systematic preparations are underway for a different type of military operation: not against the nuclear sites - that could be part of the operation, by means of Special Forces and air strikes, but that will not be enough - but against the regime that refuses to stop.

To create a deterrent threat against Iran, as the country pushes to go nuclear, without admitting to offensive intentions, a UQ narrative farther into the future, in 2015-2016, was set. But the timing ploy is transparent and suffers from an internal contradiction, because the rationale of the confrontation with Iran will not occur in another dozen years. It will be resolved, one way or the other, by Iranian submission or American action, in the years immediately ahead, and perhaps within one year.

President Bush's top adviser, Karl Rove, is said to have declared that you don't shoot in an election year - and, in the months ahead, the efforts at persuasion will continue, along with the warnings and the sanctions, until the moment of decision arrives, though the threat must not be brandished before the polls close.

Secretary of State Colin Powell last week was careful to use the phrase "at present" when he said at the United Nations that the U.S. does not have plans for military action. As soon as the words left his mouth, that present ended and a different present, a new one, began. In its official, futuristic, timetable, the campaign that has been practiced in Unified Quest will be superfluous or too late.

Lessons from the IDF

The two main problems identified by the commanders of the Americans' "blue" force (joined by the British and, it's hoped, by others as well) in doing battle against the "red" enemy are the complexity of the urban environment and the vulnerability of the supply and communications lines. About 12 million people are crowded into the urban space of Tehran, and that number will rise to 17 million in the coming decade. The population of Greater Tehran has shot up by leaps of millions in recent years. Israelis who were last there a quarter of a century ago, when Khomeini took power, will discover that the city has more than doubled in size.

American officers warn that the routine training for combat in built-up areas is more appropriate to villages and towns than to a vast conurbation of this scale, a "mega-city" that extends across dozens of square kilometers of territory.

One of the commanders of the "red," quasi-Iranian, force, retired Colonel Richard Sinnreich, wrote, in justification of the Israeli arm's Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin, that U.S. forces are more likely to encounter situations similar to those in the West Bank than those they encountered in Afghanistan. That was before the war in Iraq. General Kevin Byrnes, commander of TRADOC (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command), said this year in a lecture that the study of the up-to-date lessons of the Israel Defense Forces and the British Army was an essential element in planning for Iraq. Even as he spoke, the reds of Sinnreich and his colleagues surprised the blues in the capital of Nair by transferring military units from sector to sector not secretly but completely in the open - though without the blues being able to bomb them, because the move was made in the course of a parade in the streets where thousands of children and other civilians were gathered.

Every soldier a combatant

The Americans don't yet have an answer to the problem that is vexing them in both Iraq and "Nair," along the 900 kilometers of the road from a southern naval base to the capital: how to minimize damage to their combat troops along the access roads.

One in four American deaths in Iraq takes place in non-combat circumstances, usually in vehicle accidents. Many of the other casualties result from the detonation of makeshift bombs. The Americans discovered that there is a large difference between "soldiers" of the type of the captured heroine Jessica Lynch - that is, uniformed personnel in the role of combat support, who have forgotten their basic training - and combatants. The first type are very soon killed, wounded or taken captive.

General Peter Schoomaker, who was recalled from retirement by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to become army chief of staff, in order to make the ground force more combative, set a new goal: every soldier will be a combatant. Signal operator and artillery gunner, military policeman and sergeant in a civilian auxiliary unit - all will first of all be riflemen, so they can defend themselves (and undercut the image of costly entanglement).

In the UQ game the lesson of Iraq was described in more rational terms: there is no gradual transition between the stages of the campaign, from "main battle operations" (whose conclusion Bush festively declared on May 1, 2003) to operations of stabilization and security. All the stages are intertwined. Even if Tehran is conquered, the regime is toppled and the president declares victory, resistance will continue, with the possibility that four of every five Iranians will support it (and there are 68 million Iranians, half of them too young to remember the shah).

It's likely that the Americans will look for a local or exiled underground which it will invite to assist the invasion and thus legitimize it, in the hope that the masses of the regime's opponents - of whom 30 percent or even 40 percent are unemployed - will join. The astonishing phenomenon of the past few weeks - the popular demonstrations in the wake of a promise by a mysterious individual, Dr. Ahura Pileghi Yazdi, in broadcasts from Washington, that Iran will be liberated from the revolutionary regime today, October 1 - shows that latent processes can be awakened at any moment and for any reason. But an external attempt to ride that wave will be a gamble. The Iranians possess a proud national consciousness; they want democracy without ayatollahs, but they also abhor external intervention, and they still remember with affront the intrigues of the CIA and British intelligence which toppled the prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, half a century ago.

The Americans have a long account to settle with the dead Khomeini and the living Khamenei. The day after the U.S. elections in another month will mark the 25th anniversary of the Iranian seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, which led to the incarceration of 50 hostages for 444 days. During that period the U.S. Army shamed itself in its own failure, without making contact with the enemy, in the planning and execution of an operation to free the hostages.

Afterward, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Americans fought the Iranians and felled them on the margins of the "war of the tankers" in the Persian Gulf. Iraq, from this point of view, was a double and ongoing diversion, in 1991 and 2003, and in the years between those two wars. The bothersome adversary - in developing missiles and seeking to go nuclear, in assisting Hezbollah and in exporting the revolution (and now also in encouraging insurrection against the Americans in Iraq) - was and remains, Iran.

American dreams

What exactly will await the Americans in Iran, even they do not purport to know. Speaking just a few months ago, at the convention of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, Philo Dibble, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and Iraq (formerly the deputy to the U.S. ambassador in Damascus), said that in the absence of an ongoing presence of his government's representatives in Iran in the recent past, America has no concrete acquaintance with the field there; there's material for reading, conversations are held with Iranians outside their country, developments are analyzed - but America doesn't really know.

Powell, in a talk with the Washington Times, recalled the period when he was a young colonel, the adjutant of the undersecretary of defense in the Carter administration, Charles Duncan, during a visit to Iran. The Iranian air force put on a spectacular show of fighter planes for Duncan, but the American experts who were deployed to assist the air force spoke about it with contempt to Powell, and described to him the gap between the pilots, who were from the aristocracy, and the operators of the systems in the backseat, who were from the lower classes. Powell, who was the national security adviser in the Reagan administration at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, quoted approvingly a remark by Henry Kissinger, who said, "It's too bad both sides didn't lose." And Powell is considered the spokesman of the moderates in the Bush administration.

All these channels converge to one clear operational conclusion. The Americans will be happy not to be drawn into a large operation in Iran. They would rather Khamenei abandons nuclear development, as Khomeini suddenly changed his mind on the eve of his death and gave in to the Iraqi demand for a cease-fire (according to a new study, one reason for this was the downing of a civilian Airbus of Iran Air by missiles fired from an American ship). They will ask the UN to authorize a multilateral operation. They will want the counter-revolution to come from within and not be tainted by foreign intervention. But if all these dreams do not come true soon, and if the connection between missile and nuclear warhead becomes imminent, they will pull out the plans that were practiced in Unified Quest and send the blues to fight the reds.