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Concerns About Military Build-Up In Iceland – OpEd – Eurasia Review

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By Lowana Veal

It was widely believed that the U.S. military left Iceland in 2006 when they abandoned the base adjoining Iceland’s international airport at Keflavik on the southwest tip of the island.

But
recent developments, in particular the visit of U.S. Vice-President
Mike Pence to Iceland in early September and perhaps a previous visit of
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February 2019, reveal other
motives.

Pompeo discussed security issues while in Iceland, and on Iceland’s national day, June 17, issued a statement
that “Iceland is also a steadfast NATO ally” and  “We thank Iceland for
its assistance with the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and the
Coalition to Defeat ISIS.”

Prior to Pence’s visit, a B2 stealth bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons had come to Iceland. A press release issued by the ‘United States Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa’
on August 2019 stated: “The use of strategic bombers in Iceland helps
exercise Naval Air Station Keflavik as a forward location for the B-2,
ensuring that it is engaged, postured and ready with credible force to
assure, deter and defend the U.S. and its allies in an increasingly
complex security environment.”

The
bomber was ostensibly in Iceland to practise “hot-pit refuelling”, a
term used for the practice of refuelling planes without shutting off the
engines.

Thorgerdur
Katrin Gunnarsdottir, leader of the Reform Party and member of the
parliamentary Althingi’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the
committee had not received confirmation that the bomber was not carrying
nuclear weapons, but that it was important to find out why the bomber
was in Iceland as well as whether it was carrying nuclear missiles.

Iceland’s
National Security Policy, formulated in 2016, states that it will
“ensure that Iceland and its territorial waters are declared free from
nuclear weapons, subject to Iceland’s international commitments, with
the aim of promoting disarmament and peace on Iceland’s part”.

During
a meeting with Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson,
Pence said that the United States is very determined to strengthen
Iceland’s defence and ensure safety, and that the security area at
Keflavik is an important component in this respect.

While
in Iceland, Pence was asked by the Icelandic press whether he thought
it had been a good idea to close down the base in 2006. He was evasive
in his response, apparently saying that he would talk to staff at the
base and report on the situation to U.S. President Donald Trump.

After
the U.S. military left Iceland, most of the site was redeveloped for
high-tech industry. But part of the site – the security zone – remained
closed to the public. This remains under the auspices of the Icelandic
Coastguard, but a Washington Post reporter travelling with Pence’s contingent described it as “slate grey and windowless. Highly secure. Lots of military and NATO work done here, per WH [White House].”

Pence
took a “brief tour inside the command centre, which was full of screens
tracking air and sea movements around Iceland and in the Arctic. It’s
part of Naval Air Station Keflavik”. But then the press was escorted
out, “so VPOTUS [the US vice-president] could get a classified
briefing.”

Although
it does not have its own military, Iceland is part of NATO and signed
the Defense of Iceland Agreement in 1951 that is still valid. Trump
recently complained that Iceland was not contributing enough to NATO
funds.

Nevertheless,
Iceland has promised to contribute 300 billion kroner (about 3.37
billion dollars) to upgrade the facilities in the security zone of the
former base so that it can house up to 1,000 troops at a time in basic
accommodation and upgrade two hangars so that they can house two fighter
jet squadrons, or 18-24 fighter jets, at a time.

The
build-up was first mooted and agreed in 2016 when a different
government was in power in Iceland, but details have only recently
emerged.

Now, the second largest party is the Left-Greens, which is anti-military and against NATO.

In a document
produced in 2018, the U.S. embassy in Reykjavik said that “(the) abrupt
2006 closure of Naval Air Station Keflavik changed the U.S.-Iceland
relationship fundamentally; the U.S. remained treaty-bound to provide
for Iceland’s defence, but the physical manifestation of that commitment
has disappeared.”.

The
embassy noted that the political situation in Iceland since the
financial crisis “strengthened pacifist political tendencies” and that
“[while] the current government … is generally supportive of close ties
with the United States, the Left Green Movement (LGM) leadership is less
forward-leaning toward U.S. and NATO positions on security matters. We
have to walk a fine line to maintain commitments in this area by being
especially cognisant of the sensitivity of the issue within the
government coalition.”

Indeed,
the Left-Greens, the only party in the Althingi [Icelandic parliament]
with an anti-NATO policy, have been bombarded with criticism for
allowing funds to go towards the revamping of part of the old base. But
it seems that they are fighting back, as PM Katrin Jakobsdottir told
Pence, and that if future developments to the former base were going to
happen, they needed first to be discussed democratically and
transparently in the Althingi. Her party intends to put forward a
proposal to this effect in the coming months.

Located
in the security zone, the Icelandic Coast Guard includes maritime
safety, security surveillance and law enforcement in the seas
surrounding Iceland in its mandate. Although security and defence issues
were discussed in the zone, Pence had also had meetings in Hofdi, the
building where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986 and at which the initial
steps were taken towards the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) which has recently ended.

At
Hofdi, Pence met Reykjavik mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson, who said he was
“grieved” that the INF Treaty had ended. Given its history, the mayor
offered the building as a future venue to discuss disarmament … because
I’m sure it’s not if but when people sit together again to work on the
issue of nuclear weapons in the world, I think that Hofdi would be an
excellent place for that.”

While
talking to Thordarson, Pence had expressed concerns about increased
military activities by the Russians in the Arctic, and said he was eager
to discuss security and commerce issues with Jakobsdottir, who met
Pence immediately after arriving from Sweden, where she had attended a
convention organised by the Council of Nordic Trade Unions.

Pence
later tweeted: “Great visiting the NATO Control and Reporting Center
today in Iceland! Thank you to the Icelandic Coast Guard Commander for a
great briefing on NATO operations based out of Keflavik Air Base.”

Jakobsdottir
had different priorities. Besides pointing out that Iceland had a
policy against military build-up in Nordic climes, she said that climate
change, gender equality and the rights of LGBTQ+ people were key issues
for her government to tackle. And she was much more worried about
climate change than Russia’s activities in the Arctic.

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Thanks !

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