The U.S. Department of Defense announced on January 15 that it was changing its command structure to move Israel from the European Command, or EUCOM, to Central Command, or CENTCOM, which covers the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of South Asia. The reticence of many Arab and Central Asian countries to work with Israel necessitated the awkward assignment of Israel outside its geographic location, but the rapprochement between Israel and several Arab and Muslim states changed that calculus.
The change is significant, as is the timing, coming just days before the end of the Trump administration. President Biden is not going to reverse this change, but it will present him some significant complications.
Israel has been working closely with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that are concerned that Biden will do as he has promised and re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, based on a return by both Iran and the United States to full compliance with the 2015 agreement. The anti-Iran coalition led by Israel and Saudi Arabia is determined to convince Biden to use the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed to squeeze more concessions out of Iran, including, according to reports, extending the most stringent limitations and inspections for 25 years rather than the current fifteen, and getting new agreements on Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support of various parties and militias throughout the region.
As many observers have noted, trying to significantly expand the JCPOA is unlikely to succeed. From Iran’s point of view, any changes it agrees to would mean rewarding the United States for breaking the agreement in the first place. European partners in the deal see it similarly, even if they support the idea of trying to expand the deal once the United States is back in.
This will not bother leaders in Jerusalem and Riyadh, who are content to see the deal evaporate completely. But they understand that Biden, the vice president who led the charge on Capitol Hill to lobby in support of the Obama administration’s biggest foreign policy achievement, is determined to re-establish calm in the Persian Gulf and to get Iran to comply with the agreement he and his colleagues so painstakingly negotiated. Instead, they hope to convince him to expand it.
There is significant support for this approach, including within Biden’s own circle of advisers. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), who was so close to Biden that many thought he might be the nominee for Secretary of State in the new administration, has said he would not support the United States re-entering the JCPOA “without some clear path towards addressing the missile program and support for proxies.” New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, whose 2015 vote in favor of the agreement was unsure until the very last moment, expressed a similar view before dropping out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
Still, if Biden makes a strong case, as he has, that the only way forward is to re-enter the deal as is and then consider how to expand on it, it is likely that Democrats will unite behind him, especially in his early days in office. The desire to repair the massive damage the Trump presidency has done to American standing in the world and American credibility is powerful.
A limited Mideast alliance
While Israel and the Saudis still pack a powerful punch in Washington, their influence on the Biden administration may be considerably diminished. Support for the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia is at an all time low. The charm offensive Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman launched failed spectacularly with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden has said “I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them. We were going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
That’s not how an incoming president refers to an ally who might convince him to change a policy he has campaigned on. On the other hand, Biden is going to face a lot of pressure to move past his distaste for MBS and maintain the close relationship the United States has had for decades with the Saudis. Still, it seems unlikely that Saudi Arabia will be able to move Biden on Iran.
The United Arab Emirates could be on better footing. The UAE Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, is perhaps the most connected Mideast representative in Washington. He has built strong relationships with people in both parties and he knows the Capitol inside and out. The UAE’s recent normalization agreement with Israel will be useful for him as well, providing Al Otaiba with more help from the pro-Israel community in representing the anti-Iran alliance to the Biden administration.
He’ll need that help because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be somewhat limited in trying to influence Biden’s Iran policy.
While Israel’s concerns are going to be deeply felt by the Biden administration, Netanyahu has done a great deal of damage to his personal relationship with the Democratic Party and his standing in the United States with his open embrace of Donald Trump and flagrant disregard of Israel’s traditional efforts at bipartisanship when dealing with the United States.
Biden has surely not forgotten Netanyahu embarrassing him in 2010 by announcing plans to expand the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo while Biden was visiting Israel. If Biden was inclined to move past that insult, Netanyahu made sure he wouldn’t by announcing another expansion in Ramat Shlomo just days after Biden won the 2020 election. Biden has also surely not forgotten how Netanyahu undermined Obama by going behind his back and conspiring with then-Speaker of the House John Boehner to arrange a joint session of Congress where Netanyahu denounced Obama and the Iran deal.
All of that will combine with the fact that Netanyahu himself is only two months away from another election, and Biden will not want to be seen as interfering with Israel’s electoral process. That reluctance will be reinforced by the fact that Netanyahu, as things stand now, is not the candidate best positioned to win, and anyone who might defeat him will be even more hardline than he is.
Still, while relations between the Biden administration and the two closest U.S. allies in the Middle East may be strained, they are still close. Biden is not going to ignore the Saudis and Israelis, and couldn’t if he wanted to, given their influence in Washington. The inclusion of Israel in CENTCOM is important in this regard, as it will facilitate direct military cooperation between the United States, its Arab allies — including those that have not yet officially normalized relations with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia — and Israel. That cooperation will bolster their ability to push Biden toward a more aggressive stance.
It will be crucial for the Biden administration to hear from Americans who support re-entry to the JCPOA without changes. That support will be necessary both to counter the Israeli and Arab states’ influence, and it will help to determine the initial course of Biden’s policy in the region for the next four years.