On January 15, just five days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Pentagon made an important announcement. It was about the decision to transfer US military liaison with Israel from Europe to its Middle East command. But It was overshadowed by the aftermath of the far more sensational story that supporters of Donald Trump had stormed the Capitol.
Because of its timing the news about the US-Israel strategic shift made little immediate impact. But it was still a landmark development in terms of how the US views its closest ally in the region and represents a political and potentially military change that could have far-reaching implications.
Previously Israel was part of the US European Command. That arrangement enabled US generals in the Middle East to interact with Arab states without having a close association with Israel, which was still seen as an “enemy” despite its peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Centcom’s area of responsibility stretches across the Middle East to Central Asia, including the Gulf region as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. It encompasses 21 countries from Syria and Iraq to Yemen.
Pro-Israeli organizations in Washington have been lobbying for some time for this change. The basis for their campaign is the assumption that as the US continues to withdraw from the Middle East, it should take advantage of its most loyal friend in the region – Israel.
An additional factor is Israel’s newly-formalized relations with the UAE and Bahrain in the Abraham Accords, brokered by Trump and signed last September in the White House. Saudi Arabia is another important actor though for reasons of its own it is unlikely to follow suit, at least for the moment.
Another key assumption is that in the coming period, the main threat to regional security will emanate from Iran and its proxies – Shia militias in Iraq to Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Efforts by the Biden administration to rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement, and crucially expand it to cover Tehran’s ballistic missiles program and regional ambitions, are designed to counter this.
It will not be easy for the new Democratic president to undo the damage caused by his Republican predecessor. Trump famously lambasted Obama’s 2015 agreement (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPoA) with Iran as the “worst deal ever.” He withdrew from it in 2018 and imposed American sanctions which have devastated the Iranian economy at a time when the country has been struggling with the Covid pandemic. Iran is now in a third successive year of economic recession.
It is too soon to predict what will happen with Biden’s commitment to rejoin the JCPoA. He has little time – given presidential elections in June in Iran that are likely to pit pragmatists against hardliners. But his appointment of the highly experienced diplomat Robert Malley as his Iran envoy has been interpreted as a sign of seriousness – even though Malley was criticized as being pro-Iranian and hostile to Israel and its new Arab allies. Biden, however, has promised to consult more closely with both Israel and the Gulf states than took place before the original JCPoA was agreed.
Trump’s decision to transfer Israel to Centcom sent a clear message about Washington’s strategic view of the region. But will Biden go along with it? The new man in the Oval Office – and key officials like Antony Blinken, his secretary of state – have spoken in favour of the normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain (and with Sudan and Morocco) so it is reasonable to assume that the 46th president will stick with it.
Signs are already apparent that this may have dramatic consequences. Obviously some aspects are secret, but specialist publications are already reporting that this change may have implications for intelligence-sharing and actual military cooperation to confront Iran. It is worth recalling that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei portrayed the Abraham Accords as an Emirati attempt “not only to subject the Palestinian question to oblivion, but also to allow Israel a foothold in the region.”
Israel, of course, is the Middle East’s only (though officially undeclared) nuclear power. It also has impressive conventional military assets, and an Israeli campaign against Iranian targets could inflict serious damage on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities, as well as its infrastructure. Direct access to Saudi, Bahraini or Emirati air bases could make all the difference.
Israelis have welcomed Trump’s decision because it gives them the potential to increase pressure on Iran with the support of Washington, having made clear their opposition to a return to the JCPoA– though the IDF chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, was considered to have gone too far last week in speaking out publicly against Biden’s approach. He said that even an agreement “with a number of improvements,” would be “a very bad and mistaken thing” – echoing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Trump’s final move – described as “a parting gift” by one pro-Israeli lobby group – underlines the now familiar point that his successor will be dealing with a very different Middle East.