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.