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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    JNS.org – Less than five months after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to its sixth European basketball title, David Blatt, now the head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, routed his former team in an exhibition game on Sunday, with the Cavaliers dominating Maccabi 107-80 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The 20,562 fans in attendance witnessed Lebron James’s first appearance in a Cavaliers uniform since he left the club in free agency for the Miami Heat four years ago. [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish New York Giants Guard Plans to Fast on Yom Kippur

    Jewish New York Giants Guard Plans to Fast on Yom Kippur

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz said on Wednesday that he will not eat anything between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday in observation of Yom Kippur, ESPN reported. “If I was playing, I wouldn’t fast, because I’ve got to be able to fuel myself to play,” said the Jewish athlete, who is on short-term leave due to a toe injury. “But it’s not that tough, really. I’ll eat dinner at 5:00 Friday, then I’ll go to services and I’ll just [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.