US President Barack Obama defended his comparison of Republicans who oppose his Iran nuclear deal to Islamist hard-liners, saying Friday that both are opposed to changing for the better.
On Wednesday, the president linked critics of the deal on Capitol Hill to hard-liners in Tehran who chant “Death to America,” drawing complaints from GOP lawmakers that he was demonizing them instead of engaging in a real political debate.
“What I said is absolutely true, factually,” Obama told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an excerpt of an interview published Friday.
What the two groups have in common is that they’re “satisfied with the status quo,” he said, according to CNN.
Hardliners are opposed to any cooperation with the international community, and Republicans have an “ideological commitment” to not getting a deal done, he said.
The full interview is slated to air Sunday.
Mitch McConnell, the top Republican lawmaker in the US Senate, has called on Obama to retract his comments, calling them offensive.
Obama is treating his drive to win congressional support for his nuclear deal with Iran like a political campaign, making attacks on opponents that need to stop, McConnell said Thursday.
Obama so far “is treating this like a political campaign,” McConnell told reporters. “Demonize your opponents, gin up the base, get Democrats all angry and, you know, rally around the president. To me, it’s a different kind of issue.”
The majority leader has said he wants senators to spend next month’s debate over the Iran deal planted in their seats — an unusual step underscoring the issue’s gravity.
McConnell’s comments came as the Senate left town for a summer recess that both sides in the dispute plan to use to try lining up support for showdown votes next month. They followed a tumultuous early debate over the nuclear agreement in which Republican opponents of the agreement have used strong language to criticize Obama.
Obama said Republicans quick dismissal of the deal also put them in line with Iranian hardliners from the Quds Force.
“The reason that Mitch McConnell and the rest of the folks in his caucus who opposed this jumped out and opposed this before they even read it, before it was even posted, is reflective of a ideological commitment not to get a deal done,” Obama said. “In that sense they do have much more in common with the hardliners who are much more satisfied with the status quo.”
Lawmakers are required to vote on whether to accept the Iran agreement by September 17.
Opponents are hoping to corral seven Democrats into the anti-bill camp, thus overriding a near-certain veto when Republican senators vote down the provisions lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on uranium enrichment.
Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat expected to be the party’s next leader in the Senate, said Thursday he will oppose the deal, breaking the Democratic firewall of backing Obama.
“The very real risk that Iran will not moderate and will, instead, use the agreement to pursue its nefarious goals is too great,” Schumer said in opposing the pact. He said he based his decision on the nuclear and non-nuclear elements of the accord and on the question, “Are we better off with the agreement or without it?”
Obama had steadily been gaining support for the pact, and on Friday, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin announced that she would back the measure.
“Simply put, I do not believe that rejecting this agreement is in our national security interest,” Baldwin said.
A leading Jewish Democrat, Schumer was the first senator of Obama’s party to step forward to oppose the deal.
Schumer’s decision was a blow to the administration, though it remained to be seen how many other Democratic lawmakers would follow the New York senator. He informed the White House of his decision Thursday afternoon
Speaking Wednesday, Obama said Iranian “hard-liners chanting ‘Death to America'” were “making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
McConnell pointedly objected to those remarks, saying, “The president ought to treat this like a serious national security debate rather than a political campaign and tone down the rhetoric and talk about the facts.”
Yet in recent weeks, some Republicans have pulled no punches to criticize Obama over the agreement, which would lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran mothballing its ambitions to build a nuclear weapon for at least a decade.
Presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz, said the pact would make the Obama administration “the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism” because lifting the sanctions would restore money to Iran that it could use to support terrorist groups it sponsors.
Another Republican presidential contender, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, said Obama is marching Jews “to the door of the oven” — a reference to both the Holocaust and Israel’s strong opposition to the agreement.
On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican, said of Obama, “He’s carrying on in the finest traditions of Neville Chamberlain,” the British prime minister best known for unsuccessfully trying to appease Germany’s Adolf Hitler before World War II.