Royce looks to check Obama's 'zeal for the deal' on Iran, North Korea

Since becoming chairman in January of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – a panel where he’s served for 20 years -- Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) has worked assiduously to forge a bipartisan foreign policy.

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His aim, he told The Hill this week: To pave the way for tough new sanctions against Iran and North Korea should President Obama's engagement efforts fail.

Royce introduced a new Iran sanctions bill last week, and is working on legislation to cut off proceeds from illegal activities to the North Korean regime.


“There is a pull-and-push between the zeal for the deal, which is always present in an executive branch, versus the experience on part of the legislative body,” Royce said in an interview in his office this week.

“My presumption is that eventually it's going to become all too obvious that the 1994 framework agreement [with North Korea] failed, as well as the decade-long negotiations with Iran. And at that time, it's time to find a creative approach that would work. My goal is to continue to develop a bipartisan consensus in the House and in the Senate that will allow us to address some of the real challenges that we face, rather than to simply put them off.”

Below is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

The Hill: Last week, the Obama administration announced it was easing demands on Iran in hopes of striking a deal on its nuclear program. Meanwhile, you introduced new sanctions legislation with the top Democrat on your committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). Are you working at cross-purposes with the White House?

Royce: We have 19 years of experience with North Korean negotiations, as we have a decade of experience with Iranian negotiations.

The Iranian negotiations began 10 years ago with 168 centrifuges spinning. And today, they have a hundredfold that number spinning. And the headline I saw last week was 'talks end, to be followed by more talks'. Well, hope does spring eternal for the executive branch to get a deal. But it's an observation from a bipartisan basis that it could be that those on the other side of the table aren't working toward a deal – they're working toward a nuclear weapon and a delivery system.

The Hill: So, what's your end game?

Royce: [My inspiration] is the bipartisan coalition in the House and the Senate deciding that the hand of the executive branch should be forced on the issue of sanctions against South Africa [the only country to have dismantled its nuclear weapons arsenal].

The [new Iran sanctions] bill will become law. I am convinced that it's the consensus view of my colleagues.

[The bill aims to quickly wean U.S. allies off of Iranian oil, expand sanctions to commercial trade with Iran and block Iran's ability to use Euros to repatriate earnings back into the country].

The Hill: Will you support Rep. Engel's pending bill to arm the rebels battling Bashar Assad in Syria?

Royce: [Engel] has his personal experiences because he's spent time talking with Assad – I was never able to meet with Assad – and obviously has concluded that Assad will simply destroy the country.

We're going to hear from a panel of those who are keeping a close eye on the situation in Syria, on the issue of Syria and on the bill. My habit is to hold the hearings first.

The Hill: You've championed efforts to stop weapons proliferation in Africa and arrest the arms trafficker Viktor Bout. Do you support the pending Arms Trade Treaty that the United Nations is bringing back up March 18, despite objections that it violates the 2nd Amendment?

Royce: There is no doubt that the ability to obtain weapons is what has helped fuel conflict, especially on the African continent. From my standpoint, if there are existing treaties and institutions that can be used to bring pressure to bear, my attitude has been to generally lean in.

In this particular case, we don't have standing in the House. The Senate makes that decision.

The Hill: Your reputation as a low-key consensus-builder has raised hopes that the committee can become more productive after the House and Senate have failed since 2003 to get an authorization bill [for the State Department and foreign operations] to the president's desk.

Royce: I believe we're likely to see action on a budget [in the Senate]. Separately, with the makeup of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we're likely to see bipartisan cooperation and an interest in the authorization bill that we're going to send over. We intend to work with [chairman Robert] Menendez (D-N.J.) and [ranking member Bob] Corker (R-Tenn.) to help secure passage in the Senate.

The Hill: You took Rep. Engel along on your first trip to South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and the Philippines earlier this year. Is that going to be a habit?

Royce: When people are obtaining information in tandem, it is easier to bring about a consensus. So I tend to stay in pretty close consultation with members on both sides of the aisle and use the hearings as an opportunity to bring the focus on some of the major challenges that we face. 

The Hill: Your father helped liberate the German concentration camp at Dachau in World War 2. How has that shaped your work on the committee?

Royce: His concern was that when the eyewitnesses to history were gone, those lessons of history might be lost. And I think the conversations I had with him had an impact on the way I see the world. It is a fairly thin veneer of civilization in many parts of the world, and it is wise to focus on what we can do both to disseminate [free] information [but also] to send a message to despots around the world.

I am convinced that we need a more vigorous approach with respect to public diplomacy, with respect to broadcasting into Iran. We are looking at restructuring the Broadcasting Board of Governors with a focus on what worked in the past in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and duplicating that in Iran. As I talk to old hands who used to work at Voice of America, they confess a real desire to recruit young Persians who are just out of the country and have their sources [inside].

The Hill: Is last year's attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi still an issue for your committee?

Royce: We haven't even seen any prosecutions yet. And we've been pressing on this issue. We were amazed at how long it took just to get the FBI on the ground, the inability to access witnesses. So, we're pressing hard. The antidote to [partisan squabbling over Benghazi] is to get prosecutions and to turn more information over.