Editor’s Note: This was excerpted from the March 16 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
It takes two to tango.
The Biden administration has so far failed to coax two-thirds of what used to be known as “the axis of evil” to the negotiating table. The White House offered talks with Iran brokered by the European Union but Tehran says the time isn’t “ripe.” Now it has emerged that North Korea has rebuffed multiple US attempts to make contact.
This shows how tough it will be for President Joe Biden to initiate aggressive diplomacy to end the nuclear threat from each US adversary. Iran and North Korea may be playing hard to get, but driving a tough initial bargain could hike the price for dialogue higher than Biden can politically pay.
Iran appears to want pre-meeting guarantees that sanctions reimposed by Donald Trump will be lifted. The US says Iran must first return to compliance with the deal from which the ex-President walked. The EU talks were an attempt to blur those hard lines. But other pressures aren’t helping: Iran’s election in June could produce a hardliner opposed to talking altogether. And Iran may seek guarantees that a future Republican President wouldn’t just trash the deal again – which Biden cannot ensure.
North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un is already disappointed that his buddy summits with Trump didn’t yield a flood of US investment. The US goal of denuclearization is probably always going to be a nonstarter with Pyongyang. And unlike his predecessor, Biden has no appetite for flying halfway around the world for a photo op with one of the world’s worst despots. Kim might also be waiting for Biden’s North Korea policy review to report.
Absent surprise breakthroughs, inertia appears most likely on two intractable foreign policy challenges that most American presidents try and fail to solve. Sometimes punting insoluble crises down the road is itself a worthy goal of diplomacy. But Biden wakes every morning in the knowledge that Iran may have moved to within months of the “breakout” moment when it has enough enriched uranium for a bomb. And Kim’s expanding nuclear and missile arsenal is an increasing threat to the US homeland.