Foreign policy challenges abound prior to Election Day

Iran: While the crisis over Tehran's alleged nuclear ambitions has stopped dominating the news over the past few weeks, it continues to simmer. The next step takes place on May 13, when Iranian leaders meet in Baghdad with the U.S and five other nations for the second meeting after a 15-month impasse was lifted last month. 

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If the multilateral sanctions still don't appear to work after Europe's ban on Iranian oil imports goes into effect July 1, all bets are off as Republicans continue to hammer Obama and Democrats on the issue ahead of the November elections. The crisis could also continue to play havoc with oil prices, causing Obama heartburn ahead of the election.

Syria: Pressure will continue to grow on the White House to do something, anything to stem the bloodshed in Syria if it becomes undeniable that former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's peace initiative is doomed to failure. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is traveling to the region during this week's recess amid talk of arming the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's forces and creating safe zones protected by western forces.

The situation could further destabilize Iraq, where Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is alleged to be pursuing a sectarian power-grab following last year's withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Afghanistan: While Obama celebrated the signing of a long-term “strategic partnership agreement” with the Afghan government during a surprise visit to Kabul on Tuesday, the war isn't over. Peace talks with the Taliban are foundering over several issues including the requested release of five detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, which faces a tough sell in Congress. And the details of the partnership, including how many troops will stay behind after 2014, have yet to be worked out in the bitterly divided Congress.

The U.S. relationship with next door Pakistan, meanwhile, remains as strained as ever. The administration this week resumed drone strikes against the express wishes of the country's government, prompting Islamabad to threaten pulling out of the NATO summit later this May dedicated to the future of Afghanistan.

North Korea: Here's another country that can always be counted on to throw the world  a curve ball. The reclusive nation is believed to be preparing for its third nuclear test, even as negotiations over the country's nuclear program and U.S. food aid have ground to a halt following its failed missile launch last month.

The Global Economy: The U.S. hosts the G8 summit in two weeks amid widespread backlash against austerity measures aimed at getting Europe's fiscal house in order. The summit will be socialist Francois Hollande's first international foray as president of France if he wins Sunday's election, as expected. And Greece is also holding legislative elections this weekend that could hand power over to an anti-austerity government, with unknown impacts on financial markets.

Trade: President Obama has vowed to double U.S. exports by 2014, and he's eager to show some progress on the proposed Pacific rim trade deal even if he's unlikely to push the issue too forcefully ahead of the election. Expect U.S. trade officials to continue pressing Japan to formally join the nine nations already engaged in the Trans-Pacific Partnership while Mexico and Canada continue to make their case for joining the talks.

In other trade news, the White House is urging a skeptical Congress to establish “permanent normal trade relations” with Russia ahead of the country's accession to the World Trade Organization in July. Some lawmakers want to preserve a Cold War-era trade policy called the Jackson-Vanik amendment it can use to pressure Russia on human rights, but the administration says this would harm U.S. exporters.


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