Iran-Israel Tensions: Israel Appears To Be Aiming For The Octopus’s Head – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg*

In a little-known speech nearly five years ago, while he was still education minister, former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett presented his proposed “octopus doctrine” for dealing with the multidimensional challenges emanating from Iran.

In a speech of mixed metaphors, equating Iran either to a swamp that had become home to a swarm of mosquitos that aimed to sting Israel or an octopus attempting to grab hold of Israel, he advocated not only dealing with mosquitoes and octopus tentacles, but also called for the swamp to be drained and the head of the octopus struck. This doctrine became the government’s official approach during his short stint as prime minister, which was brought to an end by last year’s general election.

And if media reports that Israel was behind the recent attack on a weapons production facility in Isfahan, as well as two further strikes on arms convoys on the Syria-Iraq border, are correct, this doctrine has now been adopted by the new Benjamin Netanyahu government as its modus operandi in its conflict with Iran.

Although, as is customary, no one claimed responsibility for the surprise drone attacks that caused a huge explosion in Isfahan, US officials were quick to inform the international media that they believed Israel had carried them out. The New York Times cited senior US intelligence officials, who claimed that this was the work of Mossad.

With a new nuclear deal with Iran nowhere in sight, Tehran’s support of Russia in the war in Ukraine that includes supplying so-called suicide drones, and its fingerprints all over the arming of militant groups throughout the Middle East, the US and Israel are on the same page in their assessment that there is a need for a proactive strategy to contain Iran.

When announcing his octopus doctrine, Bennett did not mince his words. “The Iranians don’t love dying,” he said, “but it is very easy for them to send others to die. While we’re shedding blood fighting their tentacles, the octopus’s head is lounging in its chair enjoying itself.” Hence, it was time, he said, for Israel to change its approach and to “aim at the head of the octopus and not its tentacles.”

For Israel, the main tentacles, so to speak, are Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the Occupied Territories. The US intelligence community has estimated that Tehran has spent as much as $700 million per year on its support for terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas, although economic hardship has probably reduced this sum more recently.

For both the US and Israel, the regime in Tehran represents a global threat and is directly involved in plotting terrorism through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Inherent to the octopus doctrine is the perception that excessive emphasis on containing Tehran’s nuclear program is compromising the overall danger posed by the regime and allowing it to prevail without fear of being directly targeted.

There might be an element of truth in this and, indeed, it has been reported that Israel has concentrated on hitting Iranian targets such as the IRGC and its Quds Force, which is tasked mainly with external operations, or attacking weapons convoys in third countries such as Syria, Iraq or Sudan. But this does not provide the full picture, as there have also been a string of assassinations of Iranian scientists inside Iran, not to mention cyberattacks and, more recently, drone attacks. Of these operations, those with the highest profile were the daring 2020 killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, and Israel’s spy agency Mossad obtaining a huge trove of documents that were stolen directly from official Iranian facilities — documents that seemed to confirm that Iran has nuclear military ambitions.

To be sure, much of Israel’s “war between wars” with Iran is taking place in third countries, but there has been a gradual shift toward the head of the octopus. In February 2022, a drone attack reportedly inflicted devastating damage on Iran’s own drone fleet at a site belonging to the IRGC in Kermanshah province. It is estimated that hundreds of drones were destroyed by the raid, which was followed by Iran firing missiles in response at what Tehran described as “secret Israeli strategic bases” in Irbil, Iraq.

Herein lies both the strategic benefit of the octopus doctrine and the high risk that accompanies it. On the one hand, it allows Israel to dictate the dynamic of its confrontation with Iran, in terms of places, types of target and the timing it chooses to hurt Iran and constantly keep it guessing. It is unsettling for the leadership in Tehran to know that no one and nothing is immune or beyond reach, including individuals and installations at the very heart of the regime, and this consequently interrupts its planning and operations.

There is also a strong psychological impact that affects morale when those who plot to inflict harm on others are forced to engage with ensuring their own safety, whether in Iran itself or elsewhere in the world. There is a strong suspicion in Tehran that its most sensitive military installations and political institutions have been compromised and are being monitored by Israeli intelligence, which adds to the leadership’s sense of vulnerability, if not paranoia.

On the other hand, if the intensity and frequency of these attacks inside Iran are to be increased, it remains to be seen at what point the regime will feel obliged to react within the limitations of its capabilities in order not to lose face and credibility.

A miscalculation by either side in terms of targets, timing and magnitude of damage could easily lead to a more direct and bloody confrontation. In the coming weeks and months, probably years, if Iran does not scale down its nuclear program and its menacing and destabilizing operations across the region, particularly those close to Israel’s borders, there is a real possibility that Israel will hit targets deep within Iran. There is no guarantee, however, that this would further deter Iran or its proxies, nor that it would further intensify the confrontation between these two sworn enemies.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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