By Lowana Veal
REYKJAVIK (IDN) – In February 2016, the U.S. government started discussions with its Icelandic counterpart on the possibility of carrying out necessary changes to the doors of the NATO hangar at Keflavik airport so that newer, larger submarine reconnaissance planes could be housed there. The matter was eventually concluded in December 2017, when the U.S. government agreed to funding.
The hangar is located in the security zone of the old U.S. military base, “Naval Air Station Keflavik”, and the reconnaissance planes in question are of the Poseidon P-8A type, designed to track the increased presence of Russian nuclear and conventional submarines in waters around Iceland – the so-called Greenland, Iceland and United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap.
There are now more Russian nuclear and conventional submarines in the GIUK Gap than during the Cold War. According to Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, surveillance flights were made from Iceland on 77 days in 2016, whereas in 2017 such flights were made on 153 days, using P-3 and P-8A surveillance planes operated by the United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) states. The P-3 is the predecessor of the P-8A.
“It was assumed from the beginning that the alterations would be funded by the U.S. government,” a Foreign Affairs ministry press officer said. In the United States 2018 Defence Budget, 14.4 million dollars was requested and allocated for “airfield upgrades” in Iceland, under Section 4602, Military Construction for Overseas Contingency Operations, and Section 2903, Air Force Construction and Land Acquisition Project. The latter allows the Secretary of the Air Force to acquire “real property” and carry out military construction projects for installations outside of the United States.
However, expenditure was also increased on the Icelandic side. In a report entitled Iceland’s Defence and NATO Operations in Iceland, dated March 8, 2017, the Icelandic Coastguard reports “increased maritime operations and capabilities”, while the Foreign Affairs Ministry says that operational funding was increased by 34 percent in the 2017 Icelandic budget “due to the operation of structures and an air defence system at Keflavik airport”.
The topic has been controversial, partly because the U.S. military left Iceland in September 2006 and there are fears that they may be considering a return. Although much of the deserted base is now being used for educational and high-tech purposes, part of the base is still closed to the public. Here, the Coastguard is responsible for maintaining hangars and other military facilities intact, while also overseeing air traffic control over Iceland, both of civilian and military planes.
In July 2016, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a report in which it openly suggested: “NATO can optimise its ASW [anti-submarine warfare] posture to ensure that the right capabilities are in the right places at the right time by reopening Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland…”
After parliamentary elections in October 2017, Katrin Jakobsdottir became Prime Minister. Allegedly the most trusted politician in Iceland at the time, she is leader of the Left-Green party, the second-largest party in the Althingi [Iceland’s Parliament], which has always had Iceland’s withdrawal from NATO as part of its manifesto although the issue was hardly mentioned in the run-up to the elections.
Its policy, however, is not shared by the other two coalition parties, the centrist Progressive Party and the right-wing Independent Party, which holds the most seats in the 63-member Althingi.
Nevertheless, in early December 2017, shortly after becoming Prime Minister, she had asked the Foreign Affairs Minister, Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, what exactly was involved in revamping of the hangar and reiterated the opposition of the Left-Greens to a military presence in Iceland. She was told that there was no intention of setting up a NATO military base in Iceland again.
Early in 2017, Steinunn Thora Arnadottir from the Left-Greens asked Foreign Affairs Minister Thordarson whether Iceland would take part in discussions leading up to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Thordarson explained that as a NATO member, it decided to boycott the talks because “Iceland considered it necessary that the nuclear states take part in the disarmament process and it was clear that this would not be the case.”
When the Left-Greens were part of the Opposition last year, Jakobsdottir was one of the seventeen Icelandic politicians who signed ICAN’s Parliamentary Pledge after the TPNW was adopted by the United Nations in July 2017. Most of the signatories were from the Left-Green and Pirate parties.
On their way back from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December 2017, Ray Acheson from Reaching Critical Will/WILPF and ICAN Australia’s Tim Wright visited Iceland. “Katrin [Jakobsdottir] came to the public talk that Tim and I gave at the university, and we also met with the rest of the Left-Greens, as well as the Pirate Party, the foreign ministry and the mayor of Reykjavik,” Acheson said.
Acheson is positive about Iceland in relation to the new Treaty, saying “there is always hope of any democratic government joining the nuclear ban treaty, as such governments are subject to the will of their people. But we do think, with Katrín Jakobsdóttir as prime minister, Iceland is in a strong position to join the treaty and lead other NATO countries to support real steps towards nuclear disarmament.”
She believes that “while Katrín and others in the government who support the ban treaty face opposition from other colleagues, it’s going to be important for Iceland to reclaim its position as a country opposed to nuclear weapons, not one that hides behind the position of NATO or the United States and allows the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians to be threatened on its behalf.”
Acheson goes on to say that “the new government, with its principled positions on issues of humanitarianism and disarmament, must make it clear that Iceland does not agree that nuclear weapons are legal or acceptable weapons for anyone to have or to use.”
Tim Wright is optimistic. “I believe it’s inevitable that Iceland will sign and ratify the treaty. It would be irresponsible not to. Katrin Jakobsdottir has pledged her support, and I’m confident that other members of her government will do the same. Nuclear weapons serve no legitimate purpose whatsoever. Iceland should be unequivocal in its opposition to them,” he pointed out.
“As a nation with no military, Iceland has a proud history of supporting peace efforts. It should be leading global efforts to eliminate the worst weapons of mass destruction, not dragging its feet.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 January 2018]
Photo: U.S. Navy Poseidon P-8A at Keflavik. 8 November 2017. Credit: b737.org.uk
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