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New CENTCOM chief visits Israel as Iran nuclear talks drag on

Gen. Michael Kurilla's visit comes as Israel seeks a Plan B in case the Vienna talks fail.
US Army Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla arrives to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The newly confirmed commander of US military forces in the Middle East, US Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, arrived in Israel on Tuesday on his first official tour of the region since taking on his new role.

Kurilla is expected to meet with Israel Defense Forces chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz during the two day visit, according to the IDF. He will also hold a panel discussion with the IDF’s strategic planning, operations and intelligence chiefs.

Discussions will focus on “ongoing operational cooperation between Israel and the United States, maintaining regional stability and dealing with joint operational threats and challenges in the region.”

Top priorities: The visit comes a month after Defense Minister Benny Gantz publicly called for forming an intelligence-sharing coalition between the United States, Israel and Arab Gulf states should negotiations in Vienna aimed at halting Iran's nuclear enrichment fail. 

  • The proposal would build upon recent years’ Arab normalization agreements with Israel to help those countries better defend against Iran and its proxy forces in the region.
  • Tehran has amassed the largest array of ballistic and precision-guided missiles in the Middle East, having proven the weapons’ effectiveness with a barrage that injured more than a hundred US troops at Ayn Al Asad Airbase in Iraq in 2020.
  • Iranian officials have reportedly refused to discuss curtailing their conventional missile program as part of ongoing multinational negotiations in Vienna.

Those talks, which have been ongoing for more than a year, remain hung up on the United States' designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

  • Israel, which opposed the original deal, has also opposed delisting the IRGC to satisfy Iranian requests, the latter a point of agreement with the top US general, Mark Milley.
  • Biden administration officials have increasingly signaled in recent months that the United States is preparing for a world with or without an Iran nuclear deal.
  • CENTCOM commander Kurilla told Senate lawmakers in February that bringing Israel into cooperation with Arab states on integrated air and missile defense offered “some of the greatest opportunity” for bolstering collective security in the region.

Regional tour: Kurilla’s first official visit to Israel as CENTCOM chief follows stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over the past week to “glean insights” from Washington's partners and allies in the region. Kurilla also visited Bahrain and met with Jordan's King Abdullah II earlier this month.

“I’m looking for gaps, risks, and opportunities in security for our partners,” the general told Al Arabiyya in an interview.

  • The CENTCOM commander will also stop at the IDF’s new command headquarters in Tel Aviv to observe Israel’s most extensive war games in decades, dubbed Chariots of Fire.
  • The nearly monthlong exercise, which was postponed due to last year’s war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, will reportedly test Israel’s wartime readiness and culminate next week in a simulated, multifront conflict complete with mock Israeli airstrikes against Iran.
  • Kurilla's visit was preceded by a stopover in Israel by CENTCOM's strategy, plans and policy chief, Maj. Gen. Scott Benedict, last week.
  • Benedict met with his counterpart, strategic planning and cooperation chief Maj. Gen. Tal Kelman and other IDF officials, to discuss "common challenges" in the region as well as operational and intelligence cooperation, the IDF said in a statement.

What's Next: Defense Minister Gantz heads to Washington for meetings with top Pentagon officials on Thursday.

Know More: Republican lawmakers urged the Biden administration last month to take “immediate action” to expedite outstanding deliveries of “the military capabilities [Israel] needs to defend itself from Iran,” namely fighter jets, transport helicopters and Boeing’s KC-46 mid-air refueling tanker.