An alarming "announcement" marked the beginning of a Tel Aviv University-based think tank's recent simulation of a plausible security scenario: namely, an unprovoked Israeli strike on Iran, made without the prior knowledge of the United States.
"Al Jazeera reports that Israeli airplanes have attacked Iran's nuclear facilities in three waves. Initial assessments estimate that the Iranian nuclear programme has been set back by nearly three years," the simulation recounts in chilling detail.
Israeli ex-spies, former politicians and military officials split into teams representing regional actors to role-play the aftermath of an attack launched soon after the US presidential election. They set out to determine, among other things, how and to what extent Hizbollah, Hamas and other militant organisations would react; the severity of retaliatory strikes against Israeli civilians; and whether Iranian strikes targeting US assets in the Arabian Gulf would force GCC states into a regional conflagration.
The Institute for National Security Studies' report on the simulation explains: "Within the INSS, there are two opposing assessments of the implications of an Israeli attack. One anticipates the outbreak of World War III, while the other envisions containment and restraint, and presumes that in practice, Iran's capabilities to ignite the Middle East are limited."
The outcome of the simulation optimistically favours the latter assessment: "The war game that took place developed in the direction of containment and restraint, with the actors motivated mainly by rational considerations and critical interests."
However, a similar exercise carried out in September by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy in the US, one of many undertaken around the world in recent months, went in a very different direction.
"Teams stumbled up the ladder of escalation," The Washington Post reported. "Each side thought it was choosing limited options, but their moves were interpreted as crossing red lines.
"Attacks proved more deadly than expected; signals were not understood; attempts to open channels of communication were ignored; the desire to look tough compelled actions that produced results neither side wanted."
Given the varied outcomes and sometimes politicised nature of this type of exercise, some readers may prefer to conduct their own independent simulation by logging on to TellMe HowThisEnds.com. This computer game, which allows participants to "Be the President. Make the Decision on Iran", also deals with what follows an attack. It owes its name to the US army general-cum-CIA director David Petraeus's famous 2003 quote highlighting the fact that the Iraq War was easy to start but that the end game was very difficult to predict.
The game, which aims "to give a reality check to the discussion about Iran", was created by the Truman National Security Project and is based on the Iran Project Report, an examination of the costs and benefits of a conflict with the country.
"A strong community of simulators has been educating policy makers and opinion leaders about Iran for years," explained Leigh O'Neill, policy director at the Truman Project. "This is an opportunity to take that approach to the American people so that our nation can make an informed decision about military action against Iran."
That description isn't likely to entice too many fun-seeking adolescent gamers, but playing it does open participants' eyes to the myriad humanitarian, strategic, diplomatic, economic and geopolitical implications of such a conflict, bringing into sharp focus the folly of unnecessary or premature military action.
As Robert Gates, who has served as both US defence secretary and director of the CIA, put it in a recent speech in Virginia: "The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations."
* Paul Muir