The Israel Defense Forces recently formed Strategy and Third Circle Directorate (a reference to countries in Israel’s third-circle periphery with Iran being the focal point) represents a new approach to assessing and preparing for Israel’s most significant emerging security threats.

Speaking to JNS, an Israeli military source shed light on the reasons that led to the founding of the new directorate. The main reasoning, he said, was the need to create a comprehensive, holistic view of developing challenges to Israel, and to view threats that begin on Iranian soil and reach the borders of Israel through a unified lens, rather than narrowly viewing developments in isolation from one another.

“Against this, we have to develop a range of capabilities—both to be ready at any minute for any development and also for the other side to be sufficiently deterred—and to know that Israel has the ability to respond unequivocally to any action or desire by the enemy,” said the source.

Instead of looking at pinpoint incidents or challenges in a single sector, the new directorate analyzes threats (and opportunities) broadly and provides rapid recommendations on operative steps.

The formation of the directorate is based on the IDF’s new strategy as formulated by the Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. The strategy envisions enhancements to the IDF’s Operations Directorate (responsible for planning the use of military force), the Intelligence Directorate and the Planning Directorate (responsible for building the IDF’s forces).

‘A holistic view of the geostrategic map’

Founded in the 1970s, the Planning Directorate traditionally dealt with force build-up, but also with strategy, and cooperation with foreign militaries. Under the IDF’s new Momentum program, the IDF’s General Staff decided to split the Planning Directorate into two organizations: one that would focus on force build-up in a dedicated manner, and a separate directorate that would focus on the increasingly complex strategic challenges developing in the Middle East.

The result was the creation of the Planning Directorate and the Strategy and Third Circle and Directorate, which “takes a holistic view of the main developments in the region and the geostrategic map,” said the source.

“States have to know why we do what we do.”

“Regarding Iran, we deal with the threat beginning from the country itself—its nuclear program, its surface-to-surface missiles. The regional Iranian threat and Iran’s desire to deepen its influence in the Middle East,” he stated.

In addition, he said, “the world of strategic threats is not only about dealing with bombs. There are soft strategic forces at work, too, and security agencies have to deal with that.”

“We understood we had to strengthen our treatment of the Iranian threat, as well as strengthening the IDF force build-up process. We began to conduct headquarters staff work on this in the General Staff. We believe that this was the right decision to take,” added the military source.

The new directorate’s personnel “wake up every morning to focus on two main things: setting up a comprehensive strategy for the IDF and being a body that can look broadly at Iran, rather than dealing with Iran in a compartmentalized manner,” he said.

The new directorate was set up in June. It includes an Iran Headquarters, a Strategy Division and the International Cooperation Division.

The directorate is under the command of Maj. Gen. Tal Kelman, the former Israel Air Force Chief of Staff.

Missile display at a ceremony in Iran on Aug. 20, 2020. Credit: Tasnim News Agency.

‘States have to know why we do what we do’

Within the Strategy and Third Circle Directorate, the Iran Headquarters now forms a single centralized agency that integrates all activities relating to Iran—a major change from the past, when multiple IDF bodies did so.

“The main role of the ‘unified pipeline’ [the Iran Headquarters] is how to deal with the Iranian threat. We call it the ‘design phase,’ ” explained the source.

Operational since June, the Iran Headquarters is in close touch with the Strategy Division, which is naturally also deeply preoccupied with Iran.

“Together, they deal with shaping the activation of force and the build-up of force,” said the source. “The Headquarters sees the whole picture … this nourishes the force build-up plans. It influences what the IDF decides to place its chips on [in terms of force development].”

Personnel in the Iran Headquarters include officers from the air force, intelligence and strategists in order to create as broad a picture as possible. The Iran Headquarters must have a good connection with other parts of the IDF and to be able to speak a common language, stressed the source.

When dealing with a threat as big as Iran, he said, “never go to the fruit. Go to the tree trunk.”

The Strategy Division, for its part, looks at policy, drawing up guidelines and defining the IDF’s desired achievements. It also helps define the intelligence needed to activate military force and shapes the IDF’s force build-up process. The end result, said the source, is an entity that provides answers not only to threats developing on the Syrian border or in Gaza, but one that can connect the dots together, and place developments in the context of Iran’s strategic concept and ideology.

The source described Iran’s overarching goal as the creation of “a deep crescent that creates a threat to the State of Israel.”

When dealing with a threat as big as Iran, he said, “never go to the fruit. Go to the tree trunk.”

The source acknowledged that this represents a major conceptual change in the IDF.

“You can put out one fire here and another there, but when an organization working against you has a deep concept, you can’t take a pinpoint approach. Hence, we set up the headquarters to avoid just looking at the Band-Aid and to see the whole,” he said.

The new directorate also includes the International Cooperation Division, which is responsible for communicating, coordinating and cooperating with other militaries.

“The International Cooperation Division does not deal with missiles and bombs, but how to link up with other militaries to promote our achievements in light of the IDF’s strategy and implementation,” said the source.

It relies on defense attachés to pass on messages, explaining Israeli strategic decisions. “States have to know why we do what we do. We also work with attaches to improve our force build-up and cooperation,” he said.

The directorate also plays a role in any political negotiations that have defense ramifications, such as Israel’s talks with Lebanon over maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea. A representative of the Strategic Division is accompanying those talks.

“The International Cooperation Division has a very clear connection to strategy,” said the source. Ultimately, he said, “we have to build a force that provides responses to a wide spectrum of possibilities.”

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