Israel will find itself diplomatically sidelined and militarily muzzled as the United States pursues a nuclear deal with Iran next year, according to a closed-door wargame at Israel's top strategic think tank.
Not even a warning shot by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - the simulation featured an undeclared Israeli commando raid on Iran's Arak heavy water plant - would shake U.S. President Barack Obamas's insistence on dialogue.
Israel's arch-foe, meanwhile, will likely keep enriching uranium, perhaps even winning the grudging assent of the West.
"The Iranians came out feeling better than the Americans, as they were simply more determined to stick to their objectives," said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser who played Netanyahu in the Nov. 1 wargame at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
Reflecting Israel's relative isolation, Eiland and his team spent much of the simulation sequestered from the multilateral talks in the snug, three-storey INSS building.
"Netanyahu" did have hallway encounters with President Barack Obama -- played by Zvi Rafiah, an Israeli ex-diplomat with extensive U.S. ties. But their chats were hasty and hazy.
"Our leverage over the Americans, when we could prise them away from the Iranians and Europeans and others, was limited," Eiland told Reuters. "Pretty much the only card we had to play was the military action card. And that's a faded card."
Assumed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, Israel has hinted at preemptive air strikes as a last resort for denying Iran the means to make a bomb. But many experts believe Israel would be tactically stymied and loath to cross Washington, which is wary of unleashing a fresh Middle East conflict.
"I care about Israel. I must defend Israel. But Israel cannot act unilaterally," said Rafiah, channelling Obama.
Balking and Brinkmanship
The simulation -- in which several serving Israeli officials took part on condition their names would not be made public -- was run by Emily Landau, a senior INSS policy expert. Reuters obtained a first look at the conclusions after they were passed to the Netanyahu government.
"The idea was to create a situation whereby the Americans try a new, bilateral approach to Iran -- both in terms of curbing its nuclear project and finding a way of satisfying its other demands," said Landau, who sees little future for UN Security Council sanctions given Russian and Chinese balking.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said the wargame results would be incorporated in internal strategic assessments. Such papers are not generally shared with the United States.
As it happened, the wargamers hunkered down in long-set stances: Iran entertaining negotiations while refusing to give up nuclear projects it says are peaceful; the United States talking tough but avoiding outright threats; and Israel fuming.
Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, a former chief of Israel's military intelligence who played Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, envisaged Tehran staying on its nuclear track "unless facing a threat to the survival of the regime".
"That just wasn't forthcoming from the Americans or their coalition," Zeevi-Farkash said, adding that "Obama" should have buttressed negotiations by boosting the U.S. naval deployment in the Gulf or persuading India to slash its business ties to Iran.
According to Zeevi-Farkash, Iran would be unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, preferring to use such weaponry to protect against invasion and wield regional clout. As such, a preemptive Israeli strike could spur Iran to get the bomb.
"Iran would argue that it was the victim of international aggression, and appeal for foreign understanding," he said, adding that, as Khamenei, he had kept open communications with other world powers while negotiating with the United States.
The simulation saw brief brinkmanship after the imagined Israeli sabotage at Arak. "Khamenei" responded by dispatching a Revolutionary Guards commander to Syria and Venezuela, flaunting Iranian influence near the Israeli and U.S. orbits.
To the dismay of "Netanyahu", "Obama" did not answer this with force, though he did extend security guarantees to Israel.
Eiland said the simulation pointed to an eventual U.S.-led shift to a policy of allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium and of "containment" should Iran eventually gain nuclear arms.
Israel would have to go along with its U.S. ally, Eiland said: "Israel cannot act alone here. An American-Iranian deal would divest Israel of the ability to attack Iran."
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