By Richard Solash, RFE/RL
WASHINGTON -- When the U.S. Congress starts its new session this month, two key committees that deal with foreign relations will be headed by lawmakers who could challenge the White House on several foreign-policy fronts, including Iran sanctions and U.S. strategy in the Caucasus.
Senator Robert Menendez (Democratic-New Jersey) is set to take over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, replacing President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of state, John Kerry.
Representative Ed Royce (Republican-California) is the new chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs now that former Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's tenure on the committee has expired.
Both Menendez and Royce have served on their respective committees for several years but their new positions will let them decide which issues to focus on, in effect, influencing the foreign-policy debate in Washington.
Both may decide to look closely at the White House's Iran policy, judging from their past statements.
Getting Tough On Iran
Senator Menendez, who is more open to considering military force than many of his Democratic colleagues, has accused the Obama administration of dragging its feet on sanctions against Tehran over its controversial nuclear program.
"I'm looking forward to voting for the strongest set of sanctions [against Iran] because I see [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad is largely dismissive of [UN] Resolution 1929," Menendez said at a committee meeting in 2010.
"And in part it's because I think we roar like a lion and bite like a puppy, and we need to change that dynamic, in my mind."
In December 2011, Menendez and Senator Mark Kirk (Republican-Illinois) co-authored tough sanctions legislation against Iran's powerful Central Bank. It was signed into law in early 2012, despite White House concern that the move could strain foreign alliances.
Menendez's stance on Iran could also put him at odds with Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee for secretary of defense. Hagel voted against sanctions on Iran when he served in the U.S. Senate.
With Power Comes Responsibility
Menendez's Cuban roots - he is the son of Cuban immigrants -- and work on Western Hemisphere issues suggest that Latin America may also receive greater focus on his committee. He has opposed the Obama's administration's efforts to relax restrictions on the regime of Fidel Castro.
In the past, Menendez has suggested that U.S. aid to Pakistan should be made contingent upon Islamabad's resolve against terror and supported Obama's plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014. He also voted for the new START treaty with Russia.
While Menendez will "continue to pursue his relatively hard line" on certain issues, he will have to consider all the responsibilities of his new post, says James Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"One of the things that Senator Menendez will have to deal with, as he is chair of the committee as opposed to being a senior member, is that he has some responsibility for the broader party view on foreign policy, so that will obviously be a calculation that he will have to [keep] in mind," Lindsay notes.
As chairman, Menendez will steer the committee's consideration of international treaties and ambassadorial nominations.
In September 2010, he blocked the nomination of Matthew Bryza, Obama's pick for U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, over his alleged anti-Armenian bias.
Menendez's home state of New Jersey has the second-largest Armenian-American population in the country and in 2009 he introduced legislation that called on the Obama administration to recognize the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians as genocide.
He has also questioned U.S. military sales to Azerbaijan, warning of their potential use in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The Armenian National Committee of America welcomed Menendez's Senate chairmanship, but sounded even more enthusiastic about Ed Royce's new position as head of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The group called him a "champion" for its causes.
Royce, whose home state of California has the country's largest Armenian-American community, is currently co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues.
"The world's strength to oppose killing today is made greater by accountability for actions present, but also past," Royce said at an April 2011 event on Capitol Hill to mark the anniversary of mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.
"It's weakened by denial of accountability of past acts. Not recognizing the Armenian genocide does just that, and that is why we will not give up."
In a recent interview with "The Washington Post," Royce accused the White House of hesitating on Iran sanctions. He vowed to consider ways to tighten sanctions against Tehran and "bolster the democratic opposition."
Royce also criticized the Obama administration's initial opposition to the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which sanctions Russian officials implicated in gross human rights violations.
As chairman, he has also pledged to "give a greater focus to Asia" and to consider developments in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, where he says the Obama administration lacks a coherent approach.
Royce is also expected to take up the issue of diplomatic security, including the September 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
Copyright (c) 2013 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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