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Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden will face three urgent nuclear challenges upon entering the White House.

Why it matters: Arms control with Russia is crumbling, Iran’s uranium stockpiles are growing, and North Korea is as vexing and threatening as ever.

The last treaty constraining the world's two nuclear superpowers, New START, is due to expire 15 days after Biden takes office.

  • President Trump was skeptical of that Obama-era deal, but both Biden and Russia's Vladimir Putin want to activate a five-year extension. Their approval and a bit of protocol are all that’s required.
  • That will avert an immediate arms race. It won’t address Russia’s new weapons systems and smaller "tactical" nukes — not to mention China’s unconstrained nuclear buildup.
  • The Trump administration pushed a proposal for the "future of arms control," involving both Russia and China, but it arrived to the issue late and didn't get very far.

The state of play: Biden sees New START, once extended, as the "foundation for new arms control arrangements." But in a climate of distrust with Moscow and Beijing — and with a plethora of competing priorities — he might struggle to break much more new ground than Trump did.

Biden also wants to move quickly to salvage the Iran nuclear deal — promising to re-enter it by lifting sanctions if Iran returns to compliance.

  • Iranian leaders have said they’d hold up their end of that deal. But they want the U.S. to make the first move and have waved away the idea of a broader, longer-lasting deal, which is Biden's ultimate objective.
  • The UN’s nuclear watchdog also revealed this week that Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium is currently 12 times what is permissible under the deal. Iran has also advanced its nuclear research and updated its facilities since Trump withdrew in 2018.
  • The Trump administration, meanwhile, is attempting to block the path back to the deal by piling on new non-nuclear sanctions that Biden might find politically tricky to lift.

What to watch: Negotiations on a follow-on deal will probably have to wait for Iran to elect its next president in June.

Trump will soon hand back the challenge Barack Obama said would be the most difficult of his presidency: North Korea.

  • Where things stand: Besides parading a giant new missile through Pyongyang last month, Kim Jong-un has gone relatively quiet. Things won't stay that way.
  • North Korea has a history of testing incoming U.S. administrations, and Kim has been clear that his suspensions of nuclear and long-range missile tests were only temporary.
  • The leaders aren’t starting on great terms. Biden called Kim a “thug” during the campaign, while North Korea labeled Biden a “rabid dog.”
  • Biden has proposed a bottom-up approach to negotiations, while working in conjunction with U.S. allies as well as China to apply pressure on Kim’s regime. In the meantime, North Korea's nuclear capabilities will continue to advance.

The bottom line: North Korea might be Biden's most difficult foreign policy challenge too.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated Jan 28, 2021 - World

Biden reviews U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia and UAE

Trump struck several large arms deals with Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Saudi Arabia. Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration has put on hold two big arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which were approved in the final weeks of the Trump administration, a State Department official told Axios.

Why it matters: The sales of F-35 jets and attack drones to the UAE and a large supply of munitions to Saudi Arabia will be paused pending a review. That signals a major policy shift from the Trump era, and may herald sharp tensions with both Gulf countries.

48 mins ago - World

WHO revises air quality guidelines to reduce deaths from pollution

Smoke from California wildfires over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in August 2021. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Wednesday updated air quality guidelines it set roughly 15 years ago, saying that negative health effects from air pollutants can begin at lower levels than it previously thought.

Why it matters: The changes are meant to reduce deaths from pollutants that cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and prematurely kill an estimated 7 million people around the world annually, according to the WHO.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
2 hours ago - Energy & Environment

The road to COP26 gets slightly easier

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The bad diplomatic vibes heading into the critical United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, might be improving slightly.

Catch up fast: Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday pledged to end overseas finance for building new coal-fired power plants and boost support for clean energy in developing nations.