Foreign Policy Tests Arrive Early for Biden

Less than one month into President Biden’s administration, serious foreign policy challenges have come to the fore. Biden is poised to make his first foreign policy address to the State Department this week, where he will stress the importance of American leadership and alliance-maintenance. That leadership will be tested through American policy toward Russia, Myanmar, and Iran. Iran, in particular, presents a rocky path for the Biden administration in its attempts to reconcile the competing demands of maintaining bipartisan outreach and reviving one of the Obama administration’s signature initiatives.

DIVERSE CHALLENGES MEET AN EBRYONIC FOREIGN POLICY

Late last week, press secretary Jen Psaki announced that President Biden plans to visit the State Department to meet with his newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken and unveil his administration’s approach to the world. While the details on specific regional strategies remain uncertain, sources close to Biden have disclosed that the speech will center on the theme of "restoring America's place in the world.” Biden is not expected to provide the specific outline of new American strategies on Russia, China, North Korea, or other U.S. adversaries, but early reports suggest that he will seek to frame his foreign policy around shoring up alliances and a “return to multilateralism.”

At the same time, a rapidly unfolding military coup in Myanmar and Russia’s imprisonment of anti-Putin dissident Alexei Navalny indicate that events may not afford Biden’s team the luxury of defining a proactive foreign policy. As former senior American diplomat for Europe Dan Fried put it in describing the crisis in Myanmar, “It is not always about us. Each [crisis] has its own dynamic, but they certainly take cues from us. What links [Russia and Myanmar] is that during the campaign, the Biden team talked about support for democracy being a North Star — a guiding point for democracy.”

PRESSURE TO ACT IN IRAN GROWING

Another major foreign policy dilemma has approached its own critical juncture. Tehran is already probing the new administration for vulnerabilities. Last week, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, wrote, “Mr. Biden and his administration should know that any delay in the lifting of sanctions will be construed as a sign of continued animosity toward the Iranian people … If the new administration does not meet its obligations and remove sanctions in short order, it will destroy the possibility for engagement within the nuclear agreement.” Other Iranian voices are even more strident. As Mehdi Mohammadi, a staunch conservative voice, tweeted earlier this month, “Iran is shifting phases from waiting and patience to aggression and action. It is time and the enemy can see the signs very clearly.”

Biden administration officials, for their part, are indicating a comparable sense of urgency. “From our perspective, a critical early priority has to be to deal with, what is an escalating nuclear crisis as they move closer and closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said this past Friday.

Even at this preliminary stage, GOP leaders are hastening to make clear that they will vigorously oppose a Biden push on Iran.  Senator Jim Inhofe took to the pages of Foreign Policy to argue that reviving the JCPOA “would be a terrible mistake because the United States should never re-enter the flawed agreement. While many of my colleagues in the U.S. Congress and I would support diplomatic efforts to end the United States’ decades-long standoff with the Iranian regime, a new and significantly improved agreement must be negotiated for us to consider supporting it.”

In the view of some, the dilemmas associated with the JCPOA are confronting the new administration with a no-win scenario. As Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it, “Biden’s Iran strategy is a work in progress. But his commitment to go back to the JCPOA is creating extreme anxiety from U.S. allies in Iranian missile range and Americans on both sides of the aisle who worry that there will be no JCPOA 2.0 when the administration gives up most of its leverage by lifting the most powerful sanctions.”