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Tuesday, 16 August 2022
Beware the Octopus Doctrine
James Denselow

The return of “near peer” competition to the world has placed a shadow of inattention on many of the pre-existing conflicts and geopolitical fault lines. Nowhere is this truer than the state of tensions between Israel and Iran. Decades of animosity have not remained constant but have instead evolved and metastasised over time with the glaring absence being a large-scale conventional conflict between the two countries.  

Israel’s approach over the past few years has been to target Iranian influence in its near abroad whilst using a covert focused effort to undermine its nuclear programme through cyber-attacks and assassinations. Syria has become the most violent battleground for the proxy aspect of the conflict with numerous Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian units in the country. Last week the Syrian Regime reported ‘heavy damage’ to its international airport in Damascus from Israeli missiles, closing the transport link to the outside world. 

Likewise, Iran has looked to target or at least threaten Israeli interests around the world. This week the Israeli Government put out a warning for all of its citizens to urgently leave Istanbul due to intelligence of an imminent Iranian attack. This proxy to and fro may not last forever. Indeed, the new Israeli administration of Naftali Bennett has been in power for just over a year and has outlined a more assertive and arguably high-risk approach to Tehran. 

Israeli officials now openly describe a new defense strategy known as the “Octopus Doctrine” aimed at the “head” of the octopus in Iran, and not just its “tentacles” across the region in places like Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq. This more aggressive policy stance coincides with the continued failure to replace or renew the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  

Speaking to the media this week Prime Minister Bennett warned that Iran was “dangerously close” to producing nuclear weapons and was enriching uranium at an “unprecedented rate”. The combination of a new Israeli doctrine towards Iran at the moment in which their nuclear programme may be coming to fruition is a combustible crossroads. What is more the international systems and alliances that have traditionally provided mediation or diplomatic channels are currently swamped with the Ukraine crisis and its economic fallout.  

Whilst we’re not looking at the prospect of Israeli tanks barrelling towards Tehran, it is not so far-fetched to speculate that the kind of strikes that we’re seeing in Syria could be replicated on Iranian soil. Rather than the supposedly more plausible deniability actions that suddenly take down Iranian’s networks or the use of drones, could more heavy-duty air and missile assets suddenly find themselves being used to take bigger chunks out of parts of the Iranian nuclear programme?  

In the more immediate phase, it seems that both sides are signalling their intention to strikes against certain individuals with Iranian regime-affiliated media outlet publishing the names of five former Israeli military intelligence officers and current tech executives who are allegedly on Tehran’s hit list. Israel killed two Iranian scientists several weeks ago by poisoning their food, a Monday report in the New York Times claimed citing an Iranian official and two other sources connected to the government. The scientists, Ayoob Entezari and Kamran Aghamolaei, died in separate incidents under murky circumstances that Iran suspects were targeted killings. 

Citing Prime Minister Bennett’s vow to pursue a policy of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ against Iran, it appears that Israel has widened its list of Iranian targets beyond the nuclear programme itself to include those linked to the country’s drone and missile programmes. Yet as an analysis from the Atlantic Council pointed out whilst Israel continues to enjoy impressive tactical successes strategically it “hasn’t achieved its goal of preventing Iran from having an advanced nuclear program”. 

As the conflict in Ukraine reminds us, violence has its own escalatory logic that can go in vastly unpredictable directions and the key message from Israel’s public acknowledgment of the ‘Octopus Doctrine’ is that regional and global players will have to expand their political bandwidth to grip the situation before it gets out of hand. Yet if Iran’s nuclear programme has progressed as many fear, it is uncertain what options countries like the US, actually have, meaning that the prospect of a regional conflagration will continue to worsen.

BY: James Denselow