The decision by the Obama administration to cut Israel out of the loop when it comes to information about the secret nuclear negotiations with Iran has once again put the feud between the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back into the spotlight. The decision was based on White House allegations that the Israelis were distorting the facts about the generous U.S. offer to the Islamist regime. But a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors to find out what’s really going on in their nuclear facilities puts this dispute in a very different light. With the Americans seeking to allow Iran the right to keep several thousand centrifuges and a nuclear stockpile, the stonewalling of the IAEA should cause observers to think carefully about the secrets the U.S. is keeping and whether they reflect the president’s zeal for a deal with Iran more than his past promises to stop them from gaining a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA reported yesterday that Iran was continuing to refuse to answer questions or allow inspections of sites that would reveal the extent of their military nuclear research. This is a crucial problem because without the UN body knowing what work Iran has done on nuclear weapons and designs, any accord based on incomplete Western intelligence or untrustworthy Iranian admissions would be meaningless. More to the point, if, as President Obama seems likely to do, the sanctions on Iran are lifted after a deal is signed, the gaps in Western knowledge of the Iranian program may allow the Islamist regime to simply proceed toward a weapon with facilities and research about which the U.S. is currently unaware.

As the New York Times notes:

The report said the agency “remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

Because Iran has not provided explanations for the agency’s questions about all nuclear-related work, the report said, “the agency is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

The problems with negotiating with Iran are well known.

On the one hand, their negotiating tactics have always revolved around delaying tactics that seek to draw out the talks in such a way that their Western interlocutors are enticed to make a series of concessions in the hope that the Iranians will finally agree. Running out the clock in this manner both sweetens a potential deal for them—as Obama’s shocking abandonment of his past principles illustrates—as well as allowing their program extra time in which to get closer to their nuclear goal.

These tactics have exploited President Obama’s open desire for détente with Iran. But in the absence of credible intelligence on their ability to “break out” to a bomb, Washington is negotiating in the dark.

The outline of a deal with Iran is already clear. As numerous reports have already established, the U.S. is prepared to allow Iran to keep most, if not all of its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for promises that it has no assurances will be kept. That will make Iran a threshold nuclear power even if it doesn’t violate the terms of the agreement. Once sanctions are lifted, it will be difficult, if not impossible to put them back in place. No matter how weak the deal or how unlikely Iran is to keep its word, President Obama will seize on it as a major foreign-policy achievement and not be inclined to question anything the Iranians do.

Thus, the Israeli alarm about this act of appeasement is more than justified. But even if you doubt Netanyahu’s judgment, the stonewalling of the IAEA should worry even the most ardent supporters of the president’s policy. Without firm knowledge of Iran’s capabilities and research—something that is unlikely to be obtained given the secretive nature of the regime and its extensive and widely dispersed nuclear facilities—U.S. guarantees about stopping Iran long before a bomb can be constructed seem like hollow promises. Put in this context, Netanyahu’s sniping about U.S. policy seems less like the pointless spat depicted in the U.S. press and more like reasonable complaints about a dangerous and secret initiative that deserve to be treated seriously.

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