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New Year, Same Foreign Policy Challenges Between U.S., Iran And North Korea


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called off his planned trip to Ukraine to deal with a crisis at the embassy in Baghdad. Pro-Iranian militia members tried to storm that embassy earlier this week. That is just one of the foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration in the new year.

NPR State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen is tracking all of them. She joins me now. Hi, Michele.


KELLY: Start with Baghdad. And what is the situation now? What's the latest?

KELEMEN: So those pro-Iranian militia members and their supporters have dispersed. The Trump administration's beefing up security, but this is clearly not over. I mean, remember; this whole thing started when an Iranian-backed militia fired on a U.S. base in Iraq and killed an American contractor. The U.S. retaliated, and the Iranian-backed group said 24 of its members were killed. So this is a situation that has been escalating.

KELLY: And what is the administration doing to try to de-escalate and reverse that?

KELEMEN: Well, they say that their goal, really, is to restore deterrence. They've been talking tough toward Iran. President Trump tweeted on New Year's Eve that Iran will be held responsible for any lives lost. They will pay a very big price, he wrote, adding, this is not a warning; it's a threat.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked about that tweet on Fox News today. Take a listen.


MARK ESPER: We have vast capability to do any number of things. We will act in response to actions by Iran or its proxies, and we will act to preempt any attacks on our forces, our personnel by Iran or its proxies.

KELEMEN: And remember, Mary Louise, after pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration began this maximum-pressure policy, claiming that it's working. However, we've seen more attacks on U.S. interests from Iran in recent months.

KELLY: Let me turn you to North Korea, which is also not having a quiet start to the year. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader - he was warning yesterday that he no longer feels himself to be bound by the moratorium on testing nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles. What has been the U.S. response thus far to that?

KELEMEN: Well, the U.S. envoy is trying to revive diplomacy and keep doors open. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said it would be deeply disappointing if Kim reneges on the commitments that he made to Trump. He says that the U.S. has kept up its end of the bargain by limiting military exercises with South Korea. But the North Koreans want more. They're looking for sanctions relief.

KELLY: One more thing before I let you go, Michelle, which is Ukraine. I mentioned Secretary Pompeo was supposed to be on a plane to Ukraine today. This is to try to help repair the relationship that has, of course, been at the center of the whole impeachment drama. What will canceling this trip, or at least delaying this trip, do to that relationship?

KELEMEN: Well, the State Department says it's a postponement. They say they're working on new dates later this month. So far, Ukraine's foreign minister says he respectfully accepts the decision to postpone, but Ukrainian officials were really hoping a high-level visit would show that relations can weather this impeachment storm. And this is the second time they had been expecting a visit by Pompeo. He - they were expecting him a couple months ago, so this is the second time a cancellation happened.

KELLY: All right. That is NPR's Michele Kelemen tracking all kinds of things there for the State Department. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.