(Adds comments from New York Senator Gillibrand, byline)
By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Aug 6 (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday rejected President Barack Obama’s pitch for the Iran nuclear deal, saying it was “absurd” to argue that lawmakers must essentially choose between the agreement and going to war.
Obama made a “huge mistake” with that argument, McConnell, a Republican, told reporters in response to a speech by Obama on Wednesday.
“It’s not this deal versus war. That’s the argument they’ve been making during the whole negotiation. It’s either this deal or a better deal, or more sanctions.”
Obama defended the July 14 U.S.-led international deal against a furious lobbying effort by political opponents and Israel, and said abandoning the agreement would open up the prospect of war.
The Democratic president said if the Republican-controlled Congress blocked the deal, it would accelerate Tehran’s path to a nuclear bomb.
“Let’s not mince words. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon,” Obama said.
But McConnell was not buying it. “That’s an absurd argument,” he said. The Senate leader also complained that the president had treated the Iran debate like a political campaign when he said that Tehran hardliners were “making common cause” with Republican lawmakers.
Obama’s speech was part of a push to promote the accord negotiated over 18 months between Iran and six world powers. The six agreed to lift economic sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program, which Tehran said was for peaceful energy purposes only.
Opponents of the agreement have said the deal does not go far enough to ensure Iran will never be able to develop a nuclear weapon. They have cited the length of time between notifications and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and their objections to doing anything that might help Iran because of its backing for Islamist militant groups.
Obama urgently needs his fellow Democrats’ support in Congress, but only a few dozen have come out so far as strongly in favor.
However, several Democrats have endorsed the Iran deal this week. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced her support on Thursday, saying it was an “imperfect” agreement but deserved Congress’ support because Iran had made essential concessions and the deal would provide inspectors with access they otherwise would not have had to Iran’s nuclear sites.
Gillibrand’s fellow New York Senator Chuck Schumer has still not announced his decision. A pro-Israel Democrat who is expected to take over as the party’s Senate leader after 2016, he is considered pivotal to the Iran deal’s future.
The White House has pressured Congress to support the deal as lawmakers head home for an August recess. Congress has until Sept. 17 to vote on it.
A resolution rejecting it would cripple the agreement by eliminating Obama’s ability to waive many sanctions - if the resolution survives a presidential veto.
Senate leaders have agreed to start the Iran debate as soon as they return to Washington on Sept. 8.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Grant McCool and Lisa Shumaker