'Stop Thinking About Winners and Losers'

Experts in game theory, conflict resolution, political science, risk management and psychology weigh in on whether Israel should preempt a possible nuclear attack by Iran - or play it cool on the sidelines.

Economist Eyal Winter has been closely following the latest developments in the Iranian arena and has what may sound like a surprising opinion on the matter. "The conflict with Iran is a game," declares Prof. Winter, director of the Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "It sounds cynical in daily language, but a game is a very serious thing."

An expert on game theory, Winter agreed to Haaretz's request to provide a strategy based on his discipline for Israeli action vis-a-vis Iran.

Is an Israeli strike on Iran a good strategy?

"Game theory is a mathematical approach that examines rational behavior in decision-making in a variety of fields. Each player has a possible range of actions. Each action taken affects the other players," Winter explains. "The object is to reach an equilibrium - a situation in which every player does what is most in his interest, subject to what he believes the other side is doing."

The first stage in such analysis is to ask, "What damage might be caused to me by the other side?" Damage assessment focuses on two phenomena: the probability that something will happen, and how powerful an event it will be, should it happen. In a recent op-ed in Haaretz (in Hebrew ), writer David Grossman suggested that since there is no way of determining for certain that, should it achieve nuclear capability, Iran will indeed attack Israel - Israel must not attack Iran. It would be a wild gamble.

Winter disagrees: "Grossman's message is completely erroneous from the standpoint of game theory. His position is that the danger of the bomb is not certain, and therefore one should not take an action that will certainly be damaging. If we were to take such a stance in daily life, we would not survive. Neither as individuals, nor as a society."


Winter: "Because Grossman addressed only the probability of damage, but forgot to factor into the equation an important variable: the magnitude of the damage should it actually be wrought. I believe that the maximum extent of damage in the event that Iran should have nuclear capability is ultimate. It means total, final, physical annihilation for every citizen in the country."

Do you really believe Iran would ever launch a nuclear bomb at Israel?

"There is a tendency to sweep aside the chance that Iran will use a nuclear bomb against us, and to address this as something with zero probability. This is an essentially wrong approach. This event has a positive probability: Even if we are talking about very low chances of occurrence, the damage that would be caused if it indeed comes about is still the greatest possible. For this reason, the product of the probability multiplied by the level of damage is significant."

In other words, even if the likelihood that Iran will attack is low, the potential damage inherent in such an attack is so great that it justifies a preventive attack by Israel?

"Not in every scenario. If in the first stage of the game we asked: 'What is the damage that might be caused to me by the other side,' then in its second stage we have to ask: 'What can I do to minimize that damage?' And in our case: 'What are the real capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces with respect to knocking out Iran's nuclear bomb. If there are such capabilities, then it is certainly reasonable to think of exercising them. On the other hand, if the capability isn't there, we need to take [the plan] off the table and think of other options."

To the endless equation of considerations, Winter adds two more critical variables. The first is the question of Iran's desire to launch a bomb should it possess one.

"Iran is a country that is conducted according to principles of religion. God is the determining factor - not the good of the citizens or the good of humanity. Therefore a nuclear weapon in Iran's hands is more dangerous than a situation in which Israel or the United States or Russia has such a bomb," Winter says. "There is also a possibility that nuclear weapons in Iran's hands will be launched without the explicit intention of the regime. Iran is not such an orderly country. The mayhem that reigns in managing the country and organizing its oversight systems could create a chain reaction that would ultimately lead to a detonation, even unintentionally."

He finds other scenarios no less troubling. "A nuclear Iran would create a tremendous incentive for the surrounding countries to acquire nuclear capability, also out of fear of it. In the worst-case scenario, one country after another develops nuclear arms, the sort that will be handled sloppily and with little monitoring - and the danger will be multiplied several times over. The statistics say that something in one of these places will go wrong - erroneous decision-making or bad engineers - and in the end a bomb will be launched in our direction."

American scenario

A different position is advanced by Dr. Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan of Hebrew University's Federmann School of Public Policy and political science department.

"Studies show that according to a great many assessments, experts - even in their own fields - are not always better [at predicting the future] than people who are not experts," he says. "On topics such as economics and security, there is a lot of uncertainty and models that are unclear."

After World War II, the father of game theory, John von Neumann, was in favor of an American assault on the Soviet Union, to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, the political scientist explains.

"That was a period which to a certain degree resembled our own situation, according to foreign reports - a reality in which one player has nuclear arms and another player does not. His recommendation was to attack the Soviet Union and deprive it of nuclear arms, to prevent a war that would bring nuclear annihilation upon the entire world. I don't envy the American politicians who received the recommendation of a distinguished and esteemed man such as him, whose motives were above reproach, and still decided not to heed him," Sulitzeanu-Kenan comments.

"Preventing Iran from getting the bomb should be examined as a means and not as an end. The real goal is increasing Israel's long-term security," he says. "In a situation like this, it is possible to think of alternatives to an attack that will achieve a similar result."

Another important consideration is the probability of error: "Besides asking ourselves what the odds are that we will succeed, we also have to ask what the likelihood is that we are wrong about our ability to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. What is the likelihood that everything that we assume we know about Iran's capability is wrong? Do our plans include contending with this contingency?

"If I know exactly what the target is, the geographic location, its depth in the ground, and the ballistic trajectory of my bomb - ostensibly it is a simple and technical matter to calculate the probability of success. But let us assume that we don't know everything. Let's assume that our intelligence is inaccurate. In that case much greater complexity enters the equation."

Complicating the issue even further is the natural tendency to be excessive in assessing changes, which stems from a human problem with dividing attention, Sulitzeanu-Kenan says: "When we think about change, we tend to think that reality will change excessively, but we don't know how to estimate to what extent life will not change. We think reality in the Middle East will change excessively if Iran has the bomb tomorrow. But who said it will be that way? Are we not exaggerating in our assessment?"

One person who is convinced that Israel is indeed overreacting in terms of its assessments is Prof. Abraham Mozes-Carmel, of the Center for Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland, who also lectures at Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion universities and is a senior member of the Israeli Mediators' Association.

"There is a lot of overheated rhetoric on both sides. What is clear to me without any doubt is that Iran and Israel - both of them - will exist even after a possible confrontation. Neither of them will disappear off the face of the earth. The question is what do you do on the day after. How do we navigate once we've reached the boiling point, and how do we cooperate?"

On what basis is cooperation with Iran possible?

Mozes-Carmel: "Since they are Shia, the Iranians are a minority in the region. Like Israel. Besides that, like the Jewish culture, Persian history and culture have always been of tremendous importance. We need to focus on managing the conflict; stop thinking about winners and losers. You cannot win in this situation. Iran cannot be made to disappear and they can't make Israel disappear either. Those are nonsensical thoughts.

"I start from the assumption that the Iranians are not crazy. They too are sitting and thinking about the consequences of every move. They too have a strategy, insight and capabilities. The Iranians know how to be inflammatory - but we do, too. When they say they want to annihilate us, to me that actually indicates a weakness and not something that is going to happen in the near future. If you read what they are saying, they are actually emphasizing that they do not intend to develop a nuclear bomb," he adds.

"The last option we should be using is force. The ability not to exercise force is what distinguishes us from beasts," Mozes-Carmel continues. "We should wage diplomacy with a carrot, understand that nuclear fission has become something divine and sacred in their eyes, and offer them something more important. For example, business and money."

'More important than the prime minister'

Ilan Jonas is the CEO of Prime Source, a Tel Aviv-based consultancy firm that offers political and geopolitical risk assessment services. Among his clients are foreign governments and multinational corporations that want to ascertain the chances of a war breaking out between Israel and Iran.

"Israel's decision as to whether to attack Iran will ultimately be made by political figures, whose decision-making process is saturated, consciously or unconsciously, with personal motivation and political interests," Jonas says. "Their ability to deviate substantially from their past patterns is limited. Therefore, any analysis of the Israeli strategy in the Iranian context must take into account not only the national interests and 'objective' strategic situation, but also the personal and political motivations of the leaders as well as their biases and their past patterns."

Jonas ventures that the most central figure in the local decision-making establishment vis-a-vis the Iranian issue is the defense minister, Ehud Barak: "He is more important than the prime minister. Netanyahu will not be able to spearhead a decision to attack without Barak's support, whereas Barak, in our estimation, will be capable of persuading Netanyahu to support such an attack if he wishes to do that."

What is your assessment regarding Barak's desire to attack Iran?

Jonas: "Barak's modus operandi, both in his military career and in his political life, warrants the title 'master of deception.' The strategy Barak has been promoting for this past half year regarding the Iranian issue is in keeping with this modus operandi. The planting of the impression that Israel is about to act at any moment was designed to introduce a dimension of urgency to the activity of the international community against Iran. In the first stage the goal was to bring the international community to impose crippling and paralyzing sanctions, and in the second stage, in case the sanctions fail - and that is the working assumption - to get the United States, not Israel, to be the one that leads the assault on Iran."

Barak's image as a master of deception is based on an analysis by Prime Source of the way he has functioned in the past. During his IDF career, for example, he would put on disguises when participating in key operations of the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. On the political front, he demonstrated similar behavior when he upped and quit the Labor Party and formed a new faction without revealing his intentions in advance, catching even those closest to him by surprise.

The bottom line of Prime Source's analysis: "Barak has proved that when he really wants to act and reach a certain objective, he does so quietly and secretly, without revealing his intentions in advance." The analysts wrote: "In the case of Barak and his statements, is what looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, a duck? Based on an analysis of his past patterns - it is probably not a duck, or at the very least, it is not yet a duck."

"This is the hardest decision imaginable," says Dan Zakay, professor emeritus of psychology at Tel Aviv University, who specializes in organizational behavior. "There are various models and approaches to making decisions. None of them can be of total assistance in this case."

Why not?

Zakay: "Because this is not an ordinary event, where you assess its worth and positive or negative utility and according to that come up with pros and cons - and at worst lose money. At stake here is the possibility that Iran will have a nuclear bomb and that it will be able to - and want to - launch it at Israel and hit it. These are given probabilities, but if it succeeds, even if the odds are minuscule - this makes the decision so very difficult."

How does this affect the decision makers psychologically?

"It puts them under very, very heavy pressure, in addition to which is a sense of responsibility, and also political considerations of one kind or another. But even in this situation, it is possible to reach a well-considered decision."

Zakay suggests taking into account several external factors. Topping the list is memory of the Holocaust: "In an imaginary situation, of another nation that is involved in a similar scenario without the background of the Holocaust, the decision could be made in a more level-headed manner. With Prime Minister Netanyahu, [the Holocaust] has an emotional and psychological impact on his set of considerations, which to an extent blurs pure rationalism and judgment."

Another factor is the public image of the decision maker, he adds: "This issue plays a very big role. Politicians want to know how they will go down in history in the wake of making a decision. Many studies show that the inner image is the main determining factor in making decisions on foreign affairs and major issues such as war and peace."

If in the end, despite everything, Israel attacks Iran, when can we expect it to happen? Prime Source's analysts estimate that it will not be in the next few months: "The probability of an Israeli attack in the first half of 2012 is fairly low. The extent of international legitimization for an operation so long as the sanctions have not taken effect fully is close to nil. In addition, it is hard to believe that Israel would act close to the time of the Olympics - between the end of July and the middle of August - because such an act, which means destroying the most important and most-watched sporting event in the world, would be a disaster from a public relations standpoint. The possible window of time for an Israeli operation will, therefore, be opened, in our assessment, during the second half of August."