Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has long taken a hardline stance on Iran’s regional intervention and controversial nuclear program. Bennett has criticized the Islamic Republic since he was first elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 2013. He has made Iran a top foreign policy issue since he became prime minister in June 2021. He has blamed Tehran for destabilizing the Middle East by funding, arming or training its allies—in Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip—that have attacked Israel. Since the early 1980s, all of Israel’s major military campaigns played out with one of Iran’s allies, partners or proxies. Bennett has also claimed that Iran is trying to carve out an empire stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.
On Iran’s nuclear program
Bennett has long warned that Iran’s nuclear program poses a significant proliferation risk. He has argued that Iran does not have a legitimate need to enrich uranium, which can be used for nuclear energy or to fuel a bomb. “Switzerland has nuclear energy, and they don't enrich uranium,” he said in 2014. “You enrich uranium in order to produce a bomb.”
Bennett was a vocal critic of the 2015 nuclear reached by Iran and six major world powers. Iran agreed to curtail its program and grant greater access to U.N. inspectors in exchange for sanctions relief. But Bennett thought the deal did not go far enough in limiting Iran’s capabilities. “Today a terrorist nuclear superpower is born, and it will go down as one of the darkest days in world history,” he said shortly after the agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was negotiated.
Bennett welcomed the U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018. “President Trump’s courage and boldness today, made the world a much safer place,” he tweeted.
Bennett has repeatedly warned the United States against returning to the deal. “I will tell President Biden that it is time to stop the Iranians, to stop this thing, not to give them a lifeline in the form of reentering into an expired nuclear deal,” he said at a cabinet meeting on August 22. Bennett was slated to meet Biden at the White House on August 26. Iran was a top item on the agenda. The prime minister said that he also intended to share a plan “to curb the Iranians, both in the nuclear sphere and vis-à-vis regional aggression.” The following are Bennett’s statements on the JCPOA.
- The JCPOA “is no longer relevant, even by the standards of those who once thought that it was.” (Aug. 22, 2021)
- “Israel will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Israel is not a party to the deal and will maintain full freedom to act … Renewing the nuclear deal is a mistake.” (June 19, 2021)
- “Returning to the Iran Deal is a mistake that will once again give legitimacy to one of the most violent, darkest regimes in the world.” (June 13, 2021)
- “The agreement [with Iran] is an unmitigated disaster. The deal being spoken about with Iran gives it the mandate to enrich uranium for its nuclear program, paving the way to create a nuclear weapon within a few years.” (March 1, 2015)
- “Iran doesn't need one centrifuge. … Any deal that allows Iran to enrich uranium, which allows them to ultimately break out within a few months with a nuclear weapon, is a disaster for the world.” (Dec. 13, 2014)
On Iran and its proxy militias
In 2018, Bennett coined the term “Octopus Doctrine” to describe his Iran strategy. He said that Israel should take direct action against Iran—the head of the octopus, not just against its tentacles in Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. “While we’re shedding blood fighting their tentacles, the octopus’s head is lounging in its chair enjoying itself,” he said when he was a member of the Knesset. The following are Bennett’s statements on Iranian proxies.
- “We are losing our sons in [Operation] Protective Edge, in the Second Lebanon War, in battles with Iran’s fingertips. And who is immune all the while? The head of the octopus … We are in a process of switching to hurting the head of the octopus — Iran’s power. I am not necessarily talking about a full-blown war with Iran tomorrow; it is more similar to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, with the two regional powers Israel and Iran.” (Feb. 9, 2020)
- “When the octopus tentacles hit you, you must fight back not just against the tentacles, but also make sure to suffocate the head of the octopus, and the same applies to Iran. For years on end, we have fought against the Iranian tentacles in Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip, but we have not focused enough on weakening Iran itself. Now we are changing the paradigm, we are now engaged in a continued effort to weaken the Iranian octopus through economic, diplomatic and intelligence measures, as well as with military means and various other approaches.” (Feb. 11, 2020)
- “The Iranians don’t love dying, but it is very easy for them to send others to die.” (May 2018)
- “[Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah portrays himself as the defender of the Lebanese people, but he must understand that if he plays the Iranian card he will decimate his country.” (May 8, 2018)
- “What I’m pushing for in Israel is to focus our energy on stemming Iran with diplomatic, economic, and other means because they’ve been immune to date. We’ve been fighting their arms, but not their head. And it’s been sort of this asymmetric situation. We’ve got a problem. Iran wants to export terror and chaos. They’re bad guys. Not the Iranian people, but the Iranian regime. The Persian people are wonderful.” (March 8, 2018)
On Iranian intervention in the region
In 2017, Bennett warned against the strategic threat from Iran across the Middle East. “What we're seeing is that Iran is trying to create a regional hegemony from Tehran, through Iraq, through Syria and ultimately Lebanon and the Mediterranean in order to create an empire, a Persian, radical Islamic empire,” he said in 2017. “This would be a threat not only to the region – to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the rational players, and of course Israel – but to the world because their goal is to dominate ultimately and subjugate the entire region and thereafter the world with this radical Islamic, fanatical ideology.” The following are Bennett’s statements on Iran’s interventions in the region.
- “What we need to do, and what we are doing, is forming a regional coalition of reasonable Arab countries, together with us, that will fend off and block this expansion and this desire for domination.” (Aug. 24, 2021)
- “Iran already knows the price that we exact when someone threatens our security…. The Iranians need to understand that it is impossible to sit peacefully in Tehran and from there ignite the entire Middle East. That is over.” (Aug. 3, 2021)
- “That territory called Syria — we have intelligence superiority and aerial superiority there.… In the infantry it is called a ‘destruction zone.’ It is a bad place for Iran to be. Anything they bring there we will immediately strike … Foreign media reported this week that 23 Syrians and Iranians were killed there. Those are large numbers, and we will do more and more so that Syria becomes their Vietnam.” (Feb. 9, 2020)
On Israel’s maritime conflict with Iran
Since 2019, Israel and Iran have reportedly engaged in tit-for-tat attacks on ships owned by or linked to each other. Iran has reportedly targeted at least three Israeli ships. Israel has also accused Iran of attacking tankers owned by third countries, including Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Over the same period, Israel has sabotaged at least 10 ships—and potentially more than 20—carrying Iranian cargo or oil, The New York Times reported in March 2021. The following are Bennett’s statements on Iran’s attacks on ships linked to Israel.
- ‘’The world recently received a reminder of Iranian aggression, this time on the high seas. The Iranians, who attacked the ship ‘Mercer Street’ with unmanned aerial vehicles, intended to attack an Israeli target. Instead, their act of piracy led to the deaths of a British citizen and a Romanian citizen. From here, I send condolences to Britain and Romania and, of course, to the families of the victims.”
“I just heard that Iran, in a cowardly manner, is trying to evade responsibility for the event. They are denying this. Then, I determine, with absolute certainty that Iran carried out the attack against the ship. Iran’s thuggishness endangers not only Israel, but also harms global interests, namely freedom of navigation and international trade.… The intelligence evidence for this exists and we expect the international community will make it clear to the Iranian regime that they have made a serious mistake. In any case, we know how to send a message to Iran in our own way.’’ (Aug. 1, 2021)
On Iran’s stability
Bennett claimed that the Iranian regime is vulnerable long term. The following are Bennett’s statements on the Islamic Republic’s trajectory.
- “In light of the megalomaniac Iranian policies of recent years, and in light of Iran’s social, economic, political and military situation, I am nearing the conclusion that Iran’s Ayatollah regime is living on borrowed time and is doomed to collapse. With its current behavior, this regime will not survive because it directs its national resources toward adventures with no regard for the interest of the Iranian people.” (May 8, 2018)
On Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi
After Raisi was elected in June 2021, Bennett condemned the new president for his role in the 1988 massacre of an estimated 5,000 political prisoners. The following are Bennett’s statements on Raisi.
- “Of all the people that (Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei could have chosen, he chose the hangman of Tehran, the man infamous among Iranians and across the world for leading the death committees that executed thousands of innocent Iranian citizens throughout the years.”
“A regime of executioners cannot have weapons of mass destruction.”
“Raisi’s election as president of Iran is a signal to world powers that they need to wake up. This may be the last signal a moment before returning to the Iran deal. They must understand who they’re doing business with and what kind of regime they are choosing to strengthen.” (June 20, 2021)
The following is a timeline of Israeli operations against Iran-backed militias in the Middle East:
- 1982 to 2000: Operation Peace for Galilee against Hezbollah
- 1987 to 1993: Military operations again Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the Palestinians’ First Intifada
- 2000 to 2005: Military operations against Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the Palestinians’ Second Intifada
- 2006: The Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah
- 2008 to 2009: Operation Cast Lead against Hamas and Islamic Jihad
- 2012 - : Sporadic airstrikes against Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian-backed militias during the Syrian civil war
- 2012: Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas and Islamic Jihad
- 2014: Operation Protective Edge against Hamas and Islamic Jihad
- 2021: Operation Guardian of the Walls against Hamas and Islamic Jihad
Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer, assembled this report with support from Tess Rosenberg, a research analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace.