Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Four More Years of Middle East Noise

November 12, 2012 6:51 pm 0 comments

President Barack Obama (far right) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—both checking their watches—in September 2010 at the White House. Photo: White House.

Back in September, when it seemed as if there was everything to play for in the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, President Barack Obama likened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s anxieties over America’s Iran policy to “noise.” Many pointed out, correctly, that this ill-advised remark was hardly fair to one of the few countries in the world where both the government and the people are unashamedly pro-American.

It was also a curious choice of wording against the wider Middle Eastern context. In terms of American commitments in the region, Israel lies outside the cycle of dependency that governs our relationships with Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf states—all places where we have, or had, substantial numbers of boots on the ground. And when it comes to noise, the sounds Israel makes are sweet music when compared to the fingernails-scratching-the-blackboard racket that emanates from other Middle Eastern countries.

Consider what has been said—or rather, yelled—in the days since Obama won a second term in office. In Iran, the three hardline Larijani brothers who all occupy key positions in the governing theocracy have issued loud, and perhaps contradictory, individual statements regarding their country’s nuclear program.

Sadeq Larijani, Iran’s Chief Justice, seemed to scorn the prospect of direct negotiations with the U.S. “After all this pressure and crimes against the people of Iran,” Larijani said, in a reference to the punishing sanctions imposed by America and its allies, “relations with America cannot be possible overnight and Americans should not think they can hold our nation to ransom by coming to the negotiating table.”

But Mohammed Javad Larijani, head of the country’s laughably named High Council for Human Rights, sounded what was, by Iranian standards, a more conciliatory tone: “To protect the interests of our system, we would negotiate with the U.S. or anyone else even in the abyss of hell.”

Meanwhile, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator and the most powerful of the brothers, taunted America outright. Asserting that a growth in domestic production would undermine “enemy plots”—a.k.a. sanctions—Larijani argued that the U.S. had been forced into sanctions because its “military adventurism” in the region had failed.

These three statements all reflect the perception among Iranian leaders that the chances of an imminent pre-emptive strike on their nuclear facilities are receding. In the days leading up to the presidential election, unconfirmed reports surfaced that the U.S. and Iran were already engaged in secret talks under the auspices of Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser, who was born in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where her father worked in a hospital, and who apparently speaks Farsi. And shortly after the election, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, said that Iran’s uranium enrichment timetable had slowed down, thus implying that the world has until at least the summer of 2013 to make progress on the diplomatic front.

Still, a delay is one thing, success something else entirely. There are precious few indications that talks with Iran would satisfactorily prove that its nuclear installations are for civilian purposes only, in part because the Iranians believe, much as the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did over his supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction program, that any ambivalence strengthens their overall position.

A generous interpretation of Obama’s strategy towards Iran holds that the president wants to demonstrate that all avenues have been properly explored before a military strike, and that America still believes in the primacy of negotiations even though these have failed for nearly a decade. However, Iran’s nuclear program is not an isolated factor. Any faith among Americans in what psychoanalysts call the “talking cure” is offset by the impact talks can have upon Iran’s actual behavior.

Both the Syrian and Lebanese theaters are good current representations of what I mean. Syria lies firmly within the Iranian camp; as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi recently argued, the Iranians are therefore a “vital” element in securing an end to the monstrous bloodshed unleashed by President Bashar al-Assad upon his people (interestingly, this observation, which formed part of a wider encomium to the Iranian regime by Morsi, was not classified in Washington as “noise.”) Hence, if America decides upon a Syrian strategy that requires Iranian goodwill, that will have knock-on effects not just for the nuclear program negotiations, but for other issues in which Iranian and Syrian interference is the major factor.

In Lebanon, the October assassination of intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan, most likely at the hands of Hezbollah, was a perfect illustration of the dangers of strengthening Iran and its allies. That danger is now stretching towards Israel.

Just a few months ago, the belief that the Assad regime was about to crumble was widespread. However, emboldened by western dithering and Iranian support, Assad is now provoking Israel, with Syrian army fire straying into the Golan Heights. On a visit to the Golan, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, warned that further escalation might result in a “Syrian affair that could turn into our affair.”

Before the presidential election, it could reasonably be said that the Middle East was closer to regional conflagration than at any other time since the October 1973 war. In the wake of Obama’s victory against Mitt Romney, nothing has changed on that front. Much as America fervently wants to fix its domestic problems, from its weakening economy through to its broken immigration system, the noise from the Middle East may well divert its attention abroad.

We cannot afford to allow these problems to fester. For much of the last two years, Obama has been accused of “leading from behind.” He now has the opportunity, following his victory, to lead from the front. And that will require him not to shut out the noise, but to dive into it headfirst.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Some punk rockers integrate their Jewish identity into their music through food, the author of a new book on the topic told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, described the way different musicians express this connection. “One band is known for throwing gefilte fish in the mosh pit, and people at its concert slide around on it while dancing,” he recounted. “Another used to drink Manischewitz [sweet kosher] wine out of a shofar [the ram […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    The manager of Scotland’s Celtic soccer club lauded Israel, after his team won a match against the Jewish state’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night. Brendan Rodgers said at a post-match press conference: On behalf of the players, the people of Celtic and Scotland, Israel’s been fantastic for us. We came out here on Sunday, [and from] the hotel, the staff, we’ve been very, very warmly received. The atmosphere at the game was amazing and, obviously, one team has to lose, but you have a wonderful team here, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scotland’s Celtic soccer club will fly to Israel with the same private jet Madonna used while on tour, The Scotsman reported on Monday. According to the report, the team is heading for the Jewish state to compete against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night, and will be transported in the customized, luxurious Boeing 757-200 that the pop icon used in New Zealand for her six-month Rebel Heart tour, which wrapped up in March. The plane is on loan from Greece-based GainJet Aviation and can accommodate 62 passengers. The […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Jewish actor Jonah Hill revealed on Wednesday morning that he had officiated the wedding of good friend and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. The “War Dogs” actor, 32, was a guest on Sirius XM’s The Howard Stern Show when the conversation turned to Levine’s July 2014 wedding to Victoria’s Secret model Behati Prinsloo. Hill said that after he was asked to officiate the nuptials, he started getting worried about the type of speech he was going to deliver. “I’m writing all these things, and then I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Music Jewish Indie Rocker Dedicates New ‘Refugee’ Track to Grandfather Who Fled Nazi Persecution

    Jewish Indie Rocker Dedicates New ‘Refugee’ Track to Grandfather Who Fled Nazi Persecution

    Jewish indie singer Ezra Furman released a song on Wednesday that he said was dedicated to his grandfather, who escaped Nazi persecution. Furman told the website Consequence of Sound that the new track, called “The Refugee,” is his “first song entirely concerned with my Jewish background and present, a song dedicated to my grandfather who fled the Nazis, as well as to all of the refugees desperate for a home today.” He added, “May all the wanderers find the homes they seek, and […]

    Read more →