Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, RÚV, reported yesterday that the US deputy secretary for state, Nicholas Burns, had phoned the Icelandic foreign minister, Geir Haarde, and informed him that the US government had decided to pull its fighter jets and helicopter rescue squadron out of Iceland. Both the jets and the helicopters will be redeployed by September of this year.
Separately, the US ambassador to Iceland, Carol Van Voorst, met with the Icelandic prime minister and foreign minister and informed them of the decision.
The Icelandic government subsequently convened and issued a press release in the late afternoon yesterday describing this turn of events.
According to Morgunbladid, Geir Haarde said in the Icelandic parliament, Althingi, today that president Bush had made the final decision to end the permanent deployment of US forces in Iceland based on the recommendation of the US secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.
US forces first arrived in Iceland in mid-1941 and relieved British forces which had arrived in 1940 at the onset of World War 2 in the wake of the German invasions of Norway and Denmark. The current defense agreement dates to 1951, and it was renewed in 1996, several years after the end of the Cold War. The term of the renewal was five years, and it was agreed that the countries would negotiate changes to the agreement, including cost-sharing, the US maintaining the position that Iceland should bear the cost of the international airport at Keflavik. Negotiations were delayed as the US responded to the events of September 11, 2001.
According to Morgunbladid, Geir said that the Icelandic government had earlier proposed to the US that it would assume responsibility for the maintenance and operations of Keflavik airport and the helicopter rescue squad, using US provided helicopters and maintenance service. The proposals would have entailed ISK 1.5 – 2.0 billion in annual expenditures for the Icelandic government. Under the proposals, Iceland would also have assumed responsibility for certain additional costs relating to the US base in Iceland, including the maintenance of buildings. Geir said the US had said it “appreciated” the proposals put forward by the Icelandic government but other considerations had weighed more heavily in making the decision to withdraw forces from Iceland, US forces were “stretched” and required elsewhere.
According to Morgunbladid, prime minister Halldór Ásgrímsson briefed the managing director of NATO of the US decision this morning. Halldór said in Althingi that he would write president Bush to request further explanation for this decision and what plans the US had for the continued defense of Iceland.
Referring to deputy secretary Burns’s phone call, Halldór said he was “not happy” with how the US had informed the Icelandic government of its decision to withdraw the US forces. He said Iceland was prepared for the loss of the US helicopter rescue squadron, replacing men and material would, however, take time. But he said the withdrawal of the US forces marked “a new chapter” in Icelandic foreign affairs. The defense of Iceland was a matter of co-operation between Iceland and other North-Atlantic nations, not just Iceland and the US. The matter needed to be discussed “in depth” with NATO.
According to Morgunbladid, foreign minister Geir Haarde said that the defense of Iceland was by no means a “private matter” for Iceland. He said he was aware that other countries were taking great interest in the matter and referred specifically to his recent discussions with the foreign ministers of Norway and Denmark.
Geir also said that time to react to the US decision to withdraw by September was “short”. “I believe that an agreement is possible given what the US is saying about its obligations under the treaty. But it is evident that a defense agreement without any defenses is not worth very much,” said Geir.
According to RÚV, the US ambassador, Carol Van Voorst, said the US would honor the defense agreement. She said that the US had informed Iceland in 2003 that the jets and the helicopters would be redeployed. President Bush had agreed to review the decision after meeting with the then prime minister Davíd Oddsson, with consideration to how the cost of the base should be shared by the two nations. The final decision had however been made based on changed circumstances in global security. The ambassador said Iceland should not have been surprised by the decision which had been made recently.
RÚV also quoted US deputy secretary of state Max Pekala saying that the US wished to open negotiations about the future defenses of Iceland “as soon as possible”. “If Iceland is threatened, the US will react,” said Pekala according to RÚV.
RÚV reports that the senior officers of the US-led “Iceland Defense Force” called a meeting this morning at the military base at Keflavik. They “mainly addressed the US servicemen and their families”, said RÚV, but the Icelandic employees were also informed that they would all be dismissed by October 1st.