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4 looming foreign policy crises that could derail Biden’s agenda early on

Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Afghanistan could cause short-term problems for Biden’s long-term global agenda.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un walks to a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Demilitarized Zone on June 30, 2019, in Panmunjom, South Korea.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden may want his administration to focus on long-term issues like the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, rebuilding alliances, and America’s relationship with China, but some key near-term foreign policy problems will likely require his attention first.

After the assassination of its top nuclear scientist by an unknown attacker, Iran might be less willing to engage in diplomacy with America and instead seek revenge by targeting US officials. North Korea could test an intercontinental ballistic missile early in Biden’s term to try to gauge the new administration’s response. The last remaining nuclear arms control deal between the US and Russia is set to expire just over two weeks after Biden takes office. And the reduced number of American troops in Afghanistan could derail sputtering peace talks and worsen the country’s security situation.

Such a dilemma wouldn’t be unique to Biden. Every new president comes in with ideas on how to handle larger global problems, only to have the colloquial “tyranny of the inbox” monopolize their time. “If you assume that foreign policy is less than half, and maybe a quarter, of the president’s time, then that really shines a light on how serious this inbox problem is,” said Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Once he’s in the Oval Office, then, Biden will likely find his hopes of tackling grander foreign policy challenges dashed by the effort he’ll have to expend cleaning up more immediate messes. What follows is what four of those messes could look like.

Iran could try to assassinate Israeli or American officials

The 2015 nuclear agreement among Iran, the US, European powers, Russia, and China put tight restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The Obama administration’s goal was to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon diplomatically instead of by military force. But President Donald Trump withdrew America from the deal in 2018, reimposed financial penalties on Iran, and asked European countries to cease their business with the country.

That kicked off a years-long cycle of escalations that, among other things, has seen Iran stockpile 12 times the amount of low-enriched uranium the deal allowed and the assassinations of two prominent Iranian officials.

The first took place in January, when the US killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary forces and one of the most powerful men in the country. Iran promised to exact a “harsher revenge” in response; so far, that revenge has consisted mostly of attacks on US forces and assets by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

The second killing happened last Friday, when the mastermind behind Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was fatally shot inside his vehicle near Tehran, reportedly with a remote-controlled weapon. No one has publicly claimed responsibility for the attack, but Israel has been suspected of orchestrating similar assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in the past.

The funeral of Iranian top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi, is held at Imamzadeh Saleh Shrine in Tehran, Iran, on November 30, 2020.
Iranian Defense Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already blamed Israel for it — and added his own threat. “Iran will surely respond to the martyrdom of our scientist at the proper time,” he said in a Saturday speech.

If Iran were to respond to these assassinations by escalating attacks on US personnel in Iraq or by attempting to assassinate US or Israeli officials, it would pose a major challenge for a Biden administration.

“Certainly a retaliation that led to the killing of an American in a theater like Iraq would create serious complications for the Biden team,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Middle East expert at the RAND Corporation.

The president-elect has often stated that America’s commitment to Israel will remain “ironclad” under his presidency. If Iran were to directly or even indirectly attack Israel, Biden would be under a lot of pressure to support Jerusalem in some way.

All of this, of course, would lead the US and Iran further down the path toward war and away from a possible diplomatic resolution. “Such responses are likely to undermine the chances for diplomacy with Biden and easing of US sanctions,” Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me.

However, Iran could use the threat of an attack as a pressure tool, she continued. “Iran could instead hold back its retaliatory moves — maintaining it will respond at a time and place of its choosing. This way Iran has some more bargaining chips when it comes to potential future talks with the Biden administration and Europeans.”

What Iran does or doesn’t do in the coming months, then, could greatly impact Biden’s grander foreign policy plans. As the oft-quoted saying goes: “The enemy gets a vote.”

North Korea could test its most powerful missile yet

Within the first few months of Barack Obama’s presidency, North Korea tested a long-range missile and a nuclear device. And in Trump’s first year in charge, Pyongyang test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and tested its most powerful nuclear bomb to date.

Some experts warn that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may make similar provocative moves in the early stages of a Biden administration.

“North Korea is one of those challenges that no one really wants to deal with right now, since there are no easy solutions or pathways to slowing down the growth of the program. But Kim has a way of putting himself back on the high-priority list,” said Vipin Narang, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program at MIT.

There are many ways Kim could do that, but one in particular stands out: He could conduct the first test of the new ICBMs he displayed during an October parade.

Those missiles were not only the biggest ever seen in North Korea’s arsenal, experts also said they were the largest road-mobile missiles with their own truck-based launchers in the world. In case of a war, then, North Korea’s military could roll these missiles out of underground bunkers, place them somewhere on land, and shoot them at the United States.

A test simulating that kind of launch would rank among the most threatening actions ever taken by Pyongyang — surely ratcheting up tensions with the US in the process.

The new missiles haven’t been tested yet, though, and they may have issues North Korea still needs to fix.

That’s why many experts predict Pyongyang will probably test one in early 2021, in part to see how it goes and in part to send a message to Biden: North Korea is a nuclear power, and you can’t do anything about it.

Such a provocative move would require some sort of response from the Biden administration. That doesn’t necessarily mean war, said Elizabeth Saunders, a US foreign policy expert at Georgetown University. But it could mean more sanctions on North Korea, reinstating US military drills with South Korea, sending more US warships to the area, or all of the above.

Figuring out the best response could take up a lot of time and energy early in Biden’s term, leaving less time and energy to address some of his longer-term policy objectives.

Russia could play hardball on arms control

New START, short for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, is a nuclear arms control agreement signed between the US and Russia in 2011. The pact limits the size of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals, which together account for 93 percent of all nuclear warheads on earth.

The problem is that the deal — the last major arms control accord between Washington and Moscow still in effect — is set to expire on February 5, 2021. That gives Biden just 16 days after becoming president to extend the pact.

Biden has committed to extending New START, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he wants to extend it for at least one year. Most experts believe Biden and Putin will swiftly extend the agreement before the deadline. “My impression is that Russia still regards an extension of New START as being in their interest,” said Sarah Bidgood, an expert on Russia’s nuclear program at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies.

Russia President Vladimir Putin chairs a video meeting of the Pobeda (Victory) organizing committee at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on July 2, 2020.
Alexei Druzhnin/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

But the short timeline could give Moscow an advantage to extract some early concessions from the Biden administration before greenlighting an extension. The Kremlin, experts say, could demand Biden lift Trump-imposed sanctions on the country, or ask that the US make a statement praising Russia’s military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh to keep the peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

It’s unclear if such requests would truly be of the take-it-or-leave-it variety. Moscow might want to see what it could get, if anything, before agreeing to an extension. Still, such a move could take the US and Russia to the brink of losing New START and decades of arms control efforts along with it.

What’s more, Bidgood said, a tough negotiation could follow after the extension, especially if Washington and Moscow don’t prolong New START for the full five years allowed under the deal. The potential for nuclear-related trouble with Russia right at the start of a new administration, then, could be a time suck for the Biden administration.

Fewer US troops in Afghanistan could derail peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban

With just two months left in office, the Trump administration is rushing to wind down the 19-year US war in Afghanistan by cutting the number of US troops in the country from 4,500 to 2,500 by January 15 — five days before Biden is to be sworn in.

But while many on both the left and the right in the US support bringing that war to an end, experts worry such a quick withdrawal will harm America’s interests in the country. “It’s hard to imagine a less responsible way to withdraw,” Jason Dempsey, a former Army infantry officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, told me earlier this month.

The main concern is what leaving so abruptly means for America’s diplomatic pact with the Taliban. The deal both parties signed earlier this year said all US troops had to leave by May 2021, assuming conditions in the country are relatively peaceful and the Taliban has upheld its end of the deal, which includes engaging in peace talks with the Afghan government and not attacking international forces.

Those peace talks began in September but are not going very well — not least because Taliban fighters have increased their attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians across the country in recent months.

US Army soldiers during NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to the Italian-run military base “Camp Arena” on November 7, 2018, in Herat, Afghanistan.
Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Dempsey, who’s now at the Center for a New American Security think tank, said pulling more US troops out of the country as those negotiations proceed could hurt Kabul’s negotiating position and encourage even more Taliban attacks. “Giving away any leverage you have as you leave is a pretty stupid way to go about it,” he told me.

The question is what Biden would do with the forces Trump plans to leave him with. The president-elect has said he wants to keep at least some troops in Afghanistan to serve as a counterterrorism force, so it’s possible he may not change anything when he takes office in January.

But if the smaller US presence emboldens the Taliban to ask for more in diplomatic talks with the Afghan government, or even attempt a forcible takeover of the Afghan government — as it did in 1996 — then the Biden administration might have to scramble to back its ally in Kabul. That could potentially lead the new president to escalate the war in the country, thereby turning much of his time and attention away from other projects to focus on an old one.

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