Negotiators from Iceland, the United States and NATO-allied countries met on Friday, July 7 in the ninth round of talks regarding the removal of the Iceland Defence Force from the naval base in Keflavík. On the agenda was a discussion of how the United States will meet its commitment to the 1951 Defence Agreement, to ensure some visible military presence in Iceland, the necessity of which, while debatable, is a priority of current Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde.
In a statement to the Alþingi in April, Haarde said, “The atrocious threats and violence that we witnessed following the publication of a series of cartoons in Jyllands-Posten are confirmation of how easily a peaceful democratic state can become the target of extremists. The new world order teaches us, above all, that unpredictable threats are widespread and that it is necessary for us to be on our guard.”
Without any physical military presence on the island, Iceland’s first line of defence against such threats is hardly readily available, the protection guaranteed by its NATO allies. Although supportive of Iceland’s position, these allies seem equally unwilling or unable to maintain a permanent presence on the island. In a press conference after a June 12 meeting with Haarde, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Foreign Minister of Germany, said that although “NATO has a certain joint responsibility regarding Iceland,” he was not sure if that responsibility entailed filling the gap that the US would leave.
Similarly, after meeting with French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy in late March, the PM told reporters that Douste-Blazy had not offered assistance regarding a visible defence force in Iceland. France’s best offer, still being finalised, is to sell rescue helicopters to Iceland to replace those likely to be removed by the Americans in September.
“We’re Not a Feeble Nation”
The expansion of Icelandic defence capabilities may therefore be the last option available for Iceland to compensate for departing American forces. For a country that has never had its own military and boasts a police force of 671 members, only a small portion of which carries guns, this is a daunting task.
To some, Iceland’s move toward self-sufficiency would be welcome news. MP Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, although unreachable for comment at this time, went on record in March claiming “A long and humiliating chapter in our history is over. We’re not a feeble nation and we can and should take responsibility for our own security.”
Progressive Party spokesperson Helga Sigrún Harðardóttir told the Grapevine that they, “along with the Independence Party, are working on several immediate activities that will replace some of the American ones: rescue helicopters, new coast guard vessels and ideas for a new organisation working on national security.”
Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason, an active leader in discussions on Icelandic security and defence, has already spoken of his desire to establish a National Security Division of the Icelandic Police. As reported in Morgunblaðið on July 3, Bjarnason’s proposal was made despite an evaluation by EU terrorism experts that the risk of terrorist acts occurring in Iceland was not great. He commented, “We want to take measures that all other countries have taken to prevent damage, rather than wait for something to happen.”
The question many are asking now is whether or not something will actually happen. Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope told Fréttablaðið, “There is no need for military forces in Iceland,” and that to his knowledge Iceland is not under any specific threat from terrorism, let alone invasions from other states. Perhaps in justification for its intended withdrawal, the US position stands in sharp contrast to that of the current Icelandic leadership.
Haarde, however, believes the threat is real and that Iceland needs a visible deterrent to potential aggression. Reacting to the coming security vacuum, the PM expressed his disappointment to the Alþingi saying, “It cannot be denied that March 15 was an historic day, and the unilateral decision by the United States while talks were in progress was a great disappointment and a setback for the defence co-operation.”
Without a doubt, the actions of the Bush government have been less than honourable. The March 15 decision to withdraw its forces from Keflavik was a breach of Article VII of the bilateral Defence Agreement signed in 1951, which states that either government’s intention to modify the agreement or to reassess its necessity must first be presented to the NATO Council for review, and an understanding between both parties must be reached before any action is taken.
Indeed, this process was followed twice during the Clinton years, first in 1994 and again in 1996. On both occasions, reductions in force were agreed upon, while continuing the commitment of the United States to maintain a visible military presence to guarantee Iceland’s security.
The Bush government has effectively leap-frogged that process, leading to negotiations in which the bottom line is non-negotiable: US military personnel, along with its F-15 fighter jets and helicopters, will leave the base for good by September 30 of this year.
On the American side, there seems to be no genuine interest in actual negotiation at all. While Iceland has its prime minister and key cabinet members at the table, the American team consists of representatives without any apparent decision-making ability. Tom Hall, sitting at the table for Icelandic negotiations, is described by the Pentagon as the “principal staff assistant to the Under Secretary of Defence for Personnel and Readiness.” Hardly a counterpart to the prime minister of Iceland.
The US is out. NATO uninterested. If Iceland is indeed serious about the threats it faces, then self-defence may be the only option.