The “Octopus Doctrine”: How Israel Is Making U.S.-Iran Nuclear Negotiations More Difficult 

By Sydnee Fox

US-Israel Military Exercise

AC12 – US-Israel Military Exercise, October 2012, Flickr: U.S. Embassy In Jerusalem

In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel and the United States have secretly coordinated several airstrikes in Syria. The targets included militant groups, foreign militaries, and, most notably, Iranian-backed militias. U.S. officials have deliberately remained quiet over the strikes against Iran-backed militias as the Biden administration is currently trying to salvage what’s left of the nuclear talks with Iran. On the other hand, Israel has been very open about its intentions to sabotage Iranian interest in the region, a position that is ultimately undermining the U.S.’ diplomatic efforts and nuclear negotiations with Iran. 

Israel’s “Octopus Doctrine”

Over the past several years, Israeli air power has been actively disrupting and damaging Iranian infrastructure in Syria and militia bases in Iraq. In addition to airstrikes, the Israeli military has conducted ground and cyber operations on Iranian soil to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Such operations included the theft of the Iranian nuclear archive in 2018, the killings of scientists associated with the nuclear program, and acts of sabotage against nuclear facilities, such as the December 2021 explosion at the enrichment complex at Natanz. These Israel operations have two main objectives—curtail Iranian influence within the region and slow down Iran’s nuclear capabilities. 

Israeli officials have revealed a name for this strategy: the “Octopus Doctrine.” In a June interview, former Israel prime minister Naftali Bennett explained, “We no longer play with the tentacles, with Iran’s proxies: we’ve created a new equation by going for the head.” Israel’s current strategy assumes that further attacking Iran will lead it to scale back military operations in the region and abandon its nuclear ambitions.

However, the “Octopus Doctrine” and Israeli attacks have undermined these stated goals, as Iran has doubled down in its defiance instead of decreasing its proxy warfare and disavowing its pursuit of nuclear capabilities. 

Iran’s Response

Iran has responded with resistance. For example, in lieu of shutting down nuclear facilities, Iran is building bigger and more protected ones. This comes in response to attacks such as last year’s joint U.S.-Israeli operation, which resulted in a significant blow to Iran’s centrifuge production capabilities. To prevent similar attacks, Iran is building its newest underground facility deep into the mountains, where it can withstand the U.S.’ cyberattacks and Israeli bunker-penetrating bombs, mitigating against potential damage in future attacks. 

Israel now faces a more protracted problem as it does not possess the necessary weapons to damage the new underground facilities effectively. This reality could embolden Iran to ramp up uranium production because it knows Israel alone is incapable of stopping it. 

More than just fortifying its nuclear facilities from attacks, it has also reduced the visibility of international monitoring organizations. Earlier this year, Iran switched off surveillance cameras used by the international nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to monitor activity at the country’s key nuclear facilities. Israel’s Iran policy has created an anxiety-fueled environment where Iran views transparency of its nuclear program with international monitoring organizations as a threat.

Israel’s strategy has also increased Iran’s desire to retaliate. The recent removal of Hossein Taeb, the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence chief, exemplifies this strengthened desire to respond aggressively. Taeb was removed from office following thirteen years of service after receiving internal criticism for his failed attempts to protect Iran against Israeli attacks. As an analyst close to Iran’s government said, “He had failed to stop Israel’s infiltration and wasn’t very successful in retaliation operations outside the borders.”

The removal of Taeb demonstrates Iran’s push to become more aggressive in its attempts to punish Israel. Taeb will likely be replaced with someone more aggressive and willing to reciprocate, increasing tensions and making diplomatic solutions unlikely. 

Negative Impact on U.S.-Iran Nuclear Negotiations

Perhaps most importantly, both Israel’s aggressive policy towards Iran and the United States’ partnership with Israel is undermining U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations. In part, the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded on anti-western and anti-Israeli views, while some of Iran’s top leaders still view Israel and the United States as corresponding. Many in Iran—including leadership—view Israeli attacks as being sanctioned by the United States.

Iran’s perspective complicates U.S. policy because while Israel aggressively confronts Iran, the United States is trying to resurrect a dead nuclear deal with the Middle East power. It will be very challenging for the United States to reach a nuclear deal with Iran if Israel continues its short-sighted approach. 

Ironically, Israel’s “Octopus Doctrine” compromises the very talks that are trying to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities and regional conflicts. Israel is making a deadly error in assuming that further attacks will force Iran to abandon its current policies. Rather, Israel’s operations have only increased Iranian motivation to acquire nuclear weapons and retaliate against Israel and the United States, making successful negotiations impossible.

Sydnee is an undergraduate student in her senior year at the University of South Florida. She focuses on international studies, and is currently Director of African Affairs and Chair of Women’s Rights for John Quincy Adams Society (USF Chapter).

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