On January 15, the U.S. Defense Department announced that it would include Israel in its Central Command (Centcom) for the first time, signaling the recent rapprochement brokered by President Donald Trump between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The Pentagon referred to moving Israel from the European Command to Centcom as a “sign of the changing political environment in the Middle East.” The move will contribute to greater cooperation against Iran, which the United States, Israel, and Arab countries view as the region’s leading security threat.
Centcom, one of the eleven unified combatant commands under the U.S. Defense Department, oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Since its founding in 1983, Israel has remained under the European Command due to regional tensions between the Jewish state and its neighbors. At the time of Centcom’s conception, Arab states did not recognize Israel as a sovereign entity. This arrangement allowed the United States to conduct multilateral exercises and operations without inter-member conflict.
The Pentagon’s decision to move Israel under Centom reflects the Jewish state’s increasingly normalized relations with its Arab neighbors brought about by the Abraham Accords. The series of historic peace deals brokered by the Trump administration in September 2020 normalized Israeli relations with the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. “The easing of tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors subsequent to the Abraham Accords has provided a strategic opportunity for the United States to align key partners against shared threats in the Middle East,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
While economic integration and regional peace were key tenants of the Abraham Accords, shared fears of Iran were certainly the foundation. President Joe Biden has pledged to return the United States to the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, but following the Arab-Israeli normalization, this approach cannot be viewed as the best course of action.
In the last two years, Iran has showcased its ballistic missile capabilities and advanced weapons delivery development. For example, Iran used cruise missiles and drones to attack Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in September 2019. The significant escalation in Iranian tactics indicates the regime is more confident and ready to use its weapons arsenal in regional conflicts. The 2015 nuclear agreement did not address Iran’s weapons advanced weapons delivery development. Additionally, Iran is unlikely to agree to divest from the stockpiled enriched uranium it was able to build up rapidly following the U.S. withdrawal in 2018.
President Biden has a better option to achieve real Middle East progress. The Biden team should piggyback off the success of the Abraham Accords to extend the momentum of regional peace. His administration can use the growing alliance between Israel and the Gulf states to exert pressure on Iran and deter it from resuming its nuclear arsenal buildup. Earlier this month, the Gulf States signed a ‘solidarity pact,’ brokered by the United States and Kuwait, strengthening their regional alliance. Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have all announced their opposition to the United States re-entering the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran.
Israel’s inclusion in the U.S. Central Command is just the most recent product of the Abraham Accords. If President Biden takes hold of the momentum the Abraham accords ignited and draws off the new relationships that make up this newly formed Middle East coalition, his administration has the opportunity to help achieve long-term regional stability in the Middle East.
Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C. and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel.