Killing Iran pact could lead to war, Rep. Keith Ellison warns

Meredith Shiner
·Political correspondent
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Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., spoke to Yahoo News about the Iran nuclear deal, modern civil rights movements and raising the minimum wage. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

As the Obama administration continues to push Congress to approve a multilateral nuclear agreement with the Iranian regime, a top House Democratic progressive warned that voting down the pact could lead to war with Iran.

In an exclusive interview with Yahoo News, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he believed that Congress voting down the deal would almost certainly pave the way for American military action, an outcome that he — and other progressives who entered Congress on a wave of anti-Iraq War sentiment in the mid-2000s — is eager to avoid.

“I clearly prefer diplomacy over warfare, and if we don’t do this deal, I don’t see how we can avoid military conflict,” Ellison said. “Because if [Republicans] do manage to scuttle this deal, clearly Congress is going to increase sanctions and Iran is probably going to be afraid, and so they’ll probably accelerate their production of a nuclear weapon. If we detect [them] doing that, we’re going to issue an ultimatum for them to stop. If they don’t, we’re probably going to bomb them.”

Ellison spoke just hours before House Democrats were scheduled to attend a classified briefing with top Obama administration officials on the agreement.

“After getting the international community, the P5+1, [to] … work with us to do a sanctions system, which can drive [Iran] to the table, and then after we get [Iran] to the table, then we’re going to say, not good enough, unilaterally — I just can’t imagine how that’s going to be good for the United States to do that,” he said. 

Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz are scheduled to appear on the Hill Wednesday and Thursday in private meetings and public hearings, urging support for the deal that was reached after months of multilateral negotiations and certified this week by the United Nations Security Council. The goal is to build a coalition large enough to either approve the deal outright or to sustain a presidential veto if Congress tries to obstruct it.

And while Kerry and Moniz are likely to find a friendly audience with Capitol Hill progressives, many Democrats are undecided. The politics of ratifying the agreement are not clear-cut for all Congressional Democrats, as Republicans are campaigning actively against the deal — both within Congress and on the 2016 presidential trail — and many pro-Israel groups, taking their cue from the Israeli government, are lobbying against it.

Ellison also has a personal stake in the outcome: a son who is currently serving in the U.S. Army. “I understand the risks associated with being a soldier,” the congressman said. “But I think as members of Congress, we should not intensify the chance that we’ll have to commit troops to a military conflict unless it’s absolutely necessary to defend the nation.”

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Ellison is one of the leaders of the House Progressive Caucus, which bucked President Obama on a trade pact but seems ready to line up behind him on a multilateral Iran nuclear deal. (Photo: Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)

Yahoo News’ interview with Ellison, broadcast on Sirius XM’s Channel 124, also previewed the congressman’s rally in Washington Wednesday with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., promoting a bill to raise the minimum wage, and touched on Democratic progressives’ role in the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Ellison, Sanders and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., are seeking to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020. Ellison, who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus, has not formally endorsed a candidate for president, and he was careful to avoid framing the pay issue in a political context. But the interview shows how rhetoric from progressives on economic issues, whether from Sanders or Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, is starting to reshape the political conversation for other Democrats, like 2016 frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

“This isn’t some calculating political strategy,” Ellison said of the minimum wage push. “It’s not about Democrats trying to get the upper hand.” But he does acknowledge that the issue has political salience, bringing up a successful ballot initiative in Arkansas in 2014 to raise the minimum wage. When Yahoo News pointed out that the Democratic Senate candidate in that state, Mark Pryor, didn’t focus as much on that issue as he did on women’s issues, like most Democrats that year, Ellison remarked: “Perhaps he should have.”

The most political note Ellison struck was in defending Sanders on civil rights issues, just days after “Black Lives Matter” protesters interrupted an immigration discussion at the progressive Netroots Nation summit in Phoenix, shouting down both Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Asked about the incident, Ellison focused his answer exclusively on Sanders, describing him as a “lifelong advocate for racial justice.” Targeting him, he said, was “a little unfortunate” and “a little bit sad.”

“I thought it was a little unfortunate that a lifelong advocate for racial justice like Bernie Sanders kind of got shouted down that way at Netroots Nation, but I also understand the intensity of how people feel who are trying to respond to these police abuse issues,” Ellison said.

“I think that anybody who is going to be the standard-bearer, the spokesman for the progressive movement, in the context of a presidential race, has got to learn to master the language and really get their finger on the pulse of how people are feeling. I think that’s really important,” he continued. “But I also think that we’ve got to understand that it’s one thing to take the stage and shout down some public official who’s denying that there’s police brutality or that there’s racism and it’s another thing to do it to Bernie Sanders, who has a whole life history of fighting for these issues. … But you know, young people may not know about it, and for them, they want to hear people who would lead them speak to your pain.”