Iran's Decentralized Structure and Challenges for Israel

Iran's Decentralized Structure and Challenges for Israel
The Operation Al-Aqsa Flood took place at a time when Iran had crossed the nuclear threshold. In addition, similar to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani that tested Iran, this time it was Israel and its capabilities that were put to the test.
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Researcher Oral Toğa

Against a backdrop of potential war in the region, Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani stated in an op-ed on October 28, 2023 that Iran is enhancing its missile capabilities solely for legitimate defense purposes and to exercise self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. "Iran's efforts for self-defense are carried out in accordance with its deterrence policy," emphasized Ashtiani. Ashtiani's emphasis on deterrence is not new, but it is timely.


Since the Iran-Iraq War, Iran's defense strategy has been based on the following pillars: deterrence, passive defense, asymmetric warfare, and forward defense. Furthermore, the country has implemented a decentralized model for its military and proxy force structure. The decentralized structure utilized in Operation Al-Aqsa Flood played an important role in the deterrence strategy, providing factors such as unpredictability and evading responsibility. Additionally, this structure contributed to the realization of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and revealed Israel's vulnerabilities.


"Crushing the Octopus' Head"

Israel has conceptualized Iran's decentralization approach as the "Octopus Doctrine." "Octopus Doctrine," a security strategy proposed by former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during his tenure as Defense Minister in 2018. Bennett advocated for Israel to adopt a proactive stance, perceiving Iran's regional proxy networks as a direct extension of Iran and therefore advocating a strategy of attacking "Octopus’ head" rather than “its arms." Bennett's approach signifies a notable change in Israel's security policies, prompting a more assertive position against Iran. In the wake of this new strategy, Iran has experienced multiple assassinations, acts of sabotage, and societal incidents. Neither the assassination of Qassem Soleimani nor events such as Fakhrizadeh's assassination have hindered Iran's efforts to reach nuclear capability or stop the IRGC's field activities. Iran can now be considered a nuclear power, and its proxy forces continue to exist, organized in the same way (if not more) by the IRGC. Israel's actions have bolstered the hawkish wing within Iran, and through various forms of electoral manipulation, the IRGC has taken control of all branches of power and the entire top bureaucracy. Today, moderates and reformists have almost no voice in politics, and this is due at least as much to Iran's internal dynamics as to the strategies of Israel and its allies.


Upon close analysis of Iran's defense strategy and developed concepts, it becomes clear that Iran has seriously analyzed and learned lessons about Israel's military reflexes. This is why Bennett's doctrine failed in Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. Despite suffering setbacks, the "Octopus" remains guarded and has thwarted direct attacks via cross-border activities, ballistic missile programs and the acquisition of nuclear technology. In addition to its hard-power elements, it has alleviated some of its political isolation through its relations with China and Russia. Further, by joining organizations like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it has raised its international profile.


On paper, Bennett said nothing wrong, but he miscalculated and failed to take into account that other actors in the world might want to take advantage of Iran's geopolitical position and capabilities on the ground. A key condition for the success of this doctrine is isolation. However, several factors including the opportunities presented to Iran by the Ukraine War, China's regional aspirations, the impact of the Covid-19 era, and the India-China rivalry have prevented the collapse of the system in Iran and created space for Iran by preventing its political isolation. The sanctions, assassinations, and acts of sabotage have indeed battered Iran, but they have not deterred it from its projects. On the contrary, they have spurred Iran on even more, led to the marginalization of differences in domestic politics, and resulted in figures such as Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh becoming symbols in the eyes of regional proxies.


Building the Big Picture with Small Pieces: The Mosaic Doctrine

The structure referred to as the "octopus" by Bennett is essentially seen as a "mosaic" from the Iranian perspective, where each small piece is a corner of a larger picture. Iran has taken great care in analyzing potential threats to its territory and has implemented decentralization in its internal structure. The Axis of Resistance groups, as well as the IRGC itself, have redesigned their structure based on this strategy. In sum, Iran has long been ready for a possible occupation. At the start of the 2000s, the IRGC announced the integration of a flexible and multi-layered defense strategy known as "mosaic defense" into their doctrines. This doctrine, formulated by former IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, involves dividing the IRGC into 31 command units, covering Tehran and 30 additional provincial centers. The mosaic defense strategy aims to create a fragmented yet comprehensive defense structure. The aim of this restructuring is to enhance the coordination among military units at the local level and empower commanders to respond promptly and efficiently to internal and external threats. This doctrine was developed by analyzing the US military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans, with the objective of bolstering Iran's resilience in case of occupation and hindering the adversary's control. Iran, with its natural defense barriers like mountains, deserts, and seas, aims to enhance its resistance using guerrilla tactics, surprise attacks, and disruption of enemy supply lines. As can be seen, Iran has adopted an asymmetrical and decentralized structure even within its own territory (which is described as the head of the octopus). Decentralization is a fundamental principle for Iran.


On the other hand, recent events show that while trying to "crush the head of the octopus," Israel has been enveloped by the arms of the octopus. The intelligence failures experienced are also due to the nature of this decentralized and autonomous system. This time, Israel is not facing armies directed by a sole center, as in the 1960s, but rather safe houses that do not recognize each other, groups that do not know each other, and politicians who do not know the decisions of the military wing (at this point, Zarif's leaked recording should be recalled). It is doubtful how many people within Hamas were aware of the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.


Israel's Challenge

The Operation Al-Aqsa Flood took place at a time when Iran had crossed the nuclear threshold. In addition, similar to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani that tested Iran, this time it was Israel and its capabilities that were put to the test. The assassination of Soleimani seriously damaged Iran's charisma, and the situation became even worse with the subsequent downing of the Ukrainian plane. However, "charisma" is not as vital an issue for Iran as it is for Israel. Given decades of black propaganda and its image in the eyes of the international community, Iran's intelligence weaknesses, the kidnapping and interrogation of its generals on its own soil, or the assassination of high-ranking figures do not have a devastating impact on Iran's reputation.


However, the situation is not the same for Israel. Since its establishment, it has tried to attract people from all over the world. Losing its claim to be "an advanced, safe haven in art, science and democracy" and ceasing to be a center of attraction will have serious consequences for Israel. The propaganda in Israel has always been in this direction. Even today, sources speak of an increasing reverse migration in Israel, especially after the practices of the Netanyahu government. That is why the first reflex at the beginning of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood in Israel was the propaganda of "people coming from all over the world to defend their country." The last thing Israel wants is for its population, many of whom have dual citizenship, to start leaving the country because of security concerns. Therefore, unlike Iran, "charisma" is a strategic issue for Israel. This is exactly where Operation Al-Aqsa Flood struck a blow. Moreover, the operations carried out by Israel to save its tarnished charisma have once again severed the improving relations with regional countries. This is another serious consequence of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood for Israel.


In conclusion, it is debatable how Israel, which values its civilians and even carried out cross-border operations in Entebbe for their loss and captivity, will respond to the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. However, apart from the bombardment in Gaza, no serious response has yet been given. This is because Iran's decentralized approach to security, along with the deterrence factors mentioned above, prevents Israel from responding quickly and effectively. "Who Israel will blame", "how much it will blame", "what kind of response it will give", and "to whom it will give that response" is a complete mystery. The "unpredictability" provided by the decentralized structure built by Iran has found its place as another new deterrent factor, and with the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the "arms of the octopus" took advantage of this and dealt a heavy blow to Israel's prestige. Finally, the aforementioned "arms of the octopus" are now openly supported by global actors such as Russia and China. Dealing with these "arms” supported by global actors is another test for Israel.