Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Risk Assessment

In an interview that was published yesterday (Dec. 17) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier remarks that in light of the findings of the most recent American National Intelligence Estimate, the “urgency” [Zeitdruck] of finding a solution to the problem of the Iranian nuclear program has been “reduced.” The remark perfectly illustrates the dangers that the 2007 NIE involves: What if the assessment of the Iranian nuclear program contained in the report should turn out to be wrong? After all, it is, in effect, the very premise of the 2007 assessment that the 2005 assessment was wrong. Both assessments, moreover, were expressed by the National Intelligence Council with “high confidence.” The obvious conclusion is that one can have no confidence in National Intelligence Council assessments: not even in those in which the council itself expresses “high confidence.” This point appears to have been lost on the German foreign minister.

But perhaps the most revealing passage in Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s interview with the FAZ comes later: when the Foreign Minister is asked about Western countries promoting the civilian use of nuclear energy in Arab countries. Here a translation of the exchange:

FAZ: There is a trend in the Arab world toward civilian use of nuclear energy. French President Sarkozy has called for the West to help [the Arab countries] in this connection: above all, in order to keep the possible development of a military application under control. Do you think this is the right approach?

Steinmeier: In the negotiations on the solution of the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, we took the decision to help Iran to develop civilian uses of nuclear energy on the condition that Iran renounces having its own nuclear weapons program, cooperates with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and signs and upholds the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This shows that there are situations in which the offering of German aid in the development of civilian uses of nuclear energy is a responsible decision. But I would not recommend treating nuclear energy as the solution to the energy problems of the world, nor would I advise spreading nuclear installations around the world and in regions where the requisite competence for using the technology is not assured and there is insufficient certainty about political stability. Moreover, this technology involves too many risks — including risks concerning its possible development for other purposes — and we have to endeavor to limit them.

The last sentence is obviously an allusion to the risk of countries diverting ostensibly “civilian” nuclear programs to military uses. Does this mean that Foreign Minister Steinmeier does not consider the risk in question to be particularly elevated in the case of Iran?

For more on the NIE and Germany’s position vis-a-vis Iran, see today’s commentary piece from German political scientist Matthias Küntzel: “What ‘International Pressure’?: The Fantasy World of the Iran NIE

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