Early in February, news reached Icelanders that American troops were coming back to Iceland after a ten-year absence. While the truth of the matter is not as dramatic, we did not learn about this from our Prime Minister, or any other government official, for that matter — we learned it from Icelandic translations of an article in Stars & Stripes, the media wing of the US military.
Here is what we know: a hangar at the location previously used as the NATO base in Keflavík will be renovated and expanded to accommodate a P-8 Poseidon, the successor to the sub-hunting P-3 Orion aircraft once stationed at the base. Some additional US military personnel will also arrive. Their specific mission will be to conduct patrols of the North Atlantic in search of Russian submarines, which have reportedly increased their presence in the region.
This does not sound particularly ominous, but the lack of communication and discussion did not kick things off well. Even Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson himself admitted he learned about the Americans’ plans from the news. The abrupt surprise of the announcement has contributed to suspicions that the US military has other plans in store. But there are also the somewhat cryptic statements of an unnamed US Navy official, who told Stars and Stripes that, in their words, the Navy “could eventually create a permanent patrol mission at the base […] which would likely resemble the Navy’s maritime patrol force at its air base in Sigonella, Sicily, where squadrons rotate out every six months.”
The official did not specify to what extent the Keflavík base could “resemble” the one in Sigonella, but the Sigonella base is home to thousands of soldiers, their families, and other personnel.
In the wake of all this, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson has been engaging in damage control, both in the Icelandic media and with the foreign press. He has repeatedly emphasised that the news does not herald the reformation of a permanent NATO base in Iceland, downplaying concerns as being politically motivated and originating almost entirely from the establishment Left in Iceland.
For the time being, we only have the word of the US military and our elected officials when it comes to the future of the base. As tensions between Russia and NATO increase, Iceland’s strategic position may have a greater part to play in the conflict. What the future holds for Iceland’s part in NATO is, as always, murky at best. It is, however, somewhat certain that Icelandic politicians may take the backlash to heart, and handle the flow of information better, if they hope to reassure the general public that there truly is nothing to hide.