Editor’s Note: In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, Kenneth Pollack spoke about a recent war game he conducted regarding the United States and Iran.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: There was another exercise in Washington last week that involved Iran, the U.S. and the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program. The Brookings Institution staged a war game. No real weapons were used, but teams playing the roles of U.S. and Iranian policymakers were presented with a hypothetical but not very far-fetched scenario, and the results were not encouraging. Kenneth Pollack is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and he ran this exercise and joins us. Good to see you again.
KENNETH POLLACK: Very good to be back.
SIEGEL: First, you’re not identifying the people who took part in the game, but can you at least describe what kind of people they were?
POLLACK: Sure. On the American side, we brought together of about a dozen former very senior American officials, people who have actually occupied the roles in reality that they were asked to play in the game. On the Iranian side, it was a little bit different. We obviously don’t have access to, honest to goodness, former Iranian policymakers. So what we had to do there was rely on Iranian-American and American experts on Iran, a number of whom had some experience in the U.S. government, but obviously somewhat different from our American team.
SIEGEL: They are presented with this scenario that you wrote, which included cyber attacks, assassinations of scientists, and it escalated from there. When you wrote all of this, did you write it in a way that you thought it was at least possible that diplomacy might prevail over threats of war?
POLLACK: Absolutely. The idea was to test some basic hypotheses about where the United States and Iran might be going. And we allowed for the scenario to move in any of several dozen different directions, some of which were entirely pacific, some were entirely bellicose and others that were a mix of the two. And some of the interesting things that came out of the game was that there were some key moments were if one team or the other had done something slightly differently, according to the other team, they would’ve had a peaceful response instead of what actually happened.
[Targeting Rouhani’s brother] is a very convenient way to cause pain to the family without necessarily provoking a crisis of office. The general message that the rest of the system is trying to send to Rouhani is not to get too far ahead of himself, to not allow his decisive election victory to give him illusions of greater autonomy and authority than his position actually has.
There's often a temptation to look for some kind of logic [in the arrests of students and dual nationals in Iran]... I think that this particular case [of Xiyue Wang] highlights the fact that the logic is simply the paranoia of the Islamic Republic—its judiciary and its security services in particular.
This is just a system [in Iran] that views individual foreigners who come to the country, particularly people with some language capabilities, as inherently suspect.