That's a test. And it's a test Iran might even pass. According to notes from Rouhani's meeting with a group of regional experts convened by the Asia Society, Iran's president asserted that his country is seeking to find a mutually acceptable solution, work with the P5+1, and act with full transparency and within the parameters of international law. He said that the Iranians would be willing to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access and meet the international safeguard agreement -- and, further, that Iran is willing to work toward removing all ambiguity surrounding its program (but will never forgo the right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology).
But so far, Obama hasn't been willing to apply that test; the politics have just been too excruciating. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who calls Rouhani "a wolf in sheep's clothing," steadfastly opposes leaving Iran with any enrichment capacity. So does most of the U.S. Senate. The letter that Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. John McCain sent to Obama insisted, in what has become boilerplate language, on "the suspension of all enrichment and reprocessing activities." A spokesman confirmed that "Senator Schumer does not support any Iranian nuclear enrichment at all."
Obama couldn't defy Congress on this -- even if he was politically prepared to do so -- since legislators must agree to roll back the sanctions that are crushing Iran's economy. And if Congress won't undo the sanctions so long as Iran retains an ongoing enrichment capacity, then Iranians won't agree to intrusive inspections, at which point any possible deal collapses. This will constitute the opposite of a "test," though it will allow congressional hawks to claim that they have proved Iran's intransigence. Diplomacy will thus fail without actually having been attempted.
And then what? Does Obama exercise the "military option" to prevent Iran from going nuclear? Both Netanyahu and congressional leaders have said that he must be prepared to do so, and Obama has complied by saying that he will confront rather than "contain" Iran. But a lot has changed in recent months, and not just in Tehran. The American people resoundingly rejected Obama's plan to fire a few missiles into Syria. Of course Iran, unlike Syria, is much more of a threat to American national security, but a massive strike against Iran, unlike a "shot across the bow" in Syria, would look very much like a war in the Middle East. I'm guessing that neither liberal Democrats nor libertarian Republicans will stand for it. How resolutely will, say, Sen. Marco Rubio demand a fusillade of Tomahawks? Given Rubio's abrupt volte-face on Syria, the question answers itself.
The alternative to diplomacy, in short, may be futility. For this reason, some legislators have pushed back against the hard line. Over the summer, North Carolina Democrat David Price and Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent sent their own letter to Obama asking for a new diplomatic initiative; they got 131 signatures, 18 of them from GOP congressmen. Many others urged them on from the sidelines. I spoke to Dent, who's very much a traditional conservative. In the aftermath of the brutal Syria debate, he said, "I don't think the president would attack Iran or anywhere else in the world. That leaves us with diplomacy or sanctions. That's why we have to try an overture." Dent blames Obama for hollowing out the credibility of military action, but he himself opposed the attack on Syria. Republicans will say it's Obama's fault, but it's their own constituents they're worried about.
This is, I admit, a very tiny opening for the president to squeeze through. Any deviation from the current formula will provoke the wrath of Congress and the Israel lobby. But Obama has got to break the stalemate. He has to show the Iranians that a meaningful end state lies beyond the painful concessions they will have to make. He has to be prepared to widen the scope of negotiations, including by offering Iran a place at the table in any future negotiations over the fate of Syria. There is no danger of excessive optimism here; everything that this president has touched in the Middle East has turned to dust. But in this one case his cautious, uncertain, all-too-easily reproachable statecraft just might yield a triumph of immense proportions.