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Blinken Grilled on Gaza and Russia at Reykjavík Press Conference

Antony Blinken US Secretary of State and Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson this morning in Reykjavík’s Harpa Conference Centre. The two held a press conference after the meeting, where reporters questioned Blinken on the ongoing violence in Gaza, US military presence in Iceland, and Russian activity in the Arctic. Secretary Blinken is in Iceland to attend the ministerial meeting of the Artic Council, which takes place tomorrow and Thursday.

Blinken arrived at Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre in downtown Reykjavík shortly after 10.00am this morning, where a group of protesters had gathered outside the building. Individuals held signs with slogans including “USA, stop arming apartheid!” and “Free Palestine” at the protest, which was organised by the Association Iceland-Palestine.

Félagið Ísland-Palestína.

Gratitude for Icelandic Defence Efforts

At the press conference following the meeting, both Guðlaugur Þór and Blinken underlined the longstanding friendship between Iceland and the United States. In Blinken’s words: “Iceland and the United States are allies and trusted partners. We have a friendship that stretches back to 1944, when we were proud to be the first country to recognize Iceland’s independence.” The Secretary commended Iceland on its leadership in gender equality and praised it as an “example to the world of what is possible in renewable energy.” He added that the United States were “grateful” for Iceland’s co-operation in defence issues, pointing out that the US-Iceland bilateral defence agreement marked its 70th anniversary earlier this month.

Grilled on Israel and Palestine

Reporters pressed Blinken on the ongoing violence in Palestine and Israel, which the two officials stated they had discussed during their meeting. Blinken referenced US President Joe Biden’s statement that “Israel, like every country, has the right to defend itself against attacks.” He added, however, that the US’ goal is “to bring the current cycle of violence to an end as quickly as possible.” Both Guðlaugur and Blinken articulated their nations’ support for a two-state solution in the region.

When asked how the US justified blocking a proposed UN statement that would condemn the violence in Gaza and call for a cease-fire, Blinked answered: “First, I think it’s important to note that we are engaged in quiet but very intense diplomacy in an effort to de-escalate and end the violence and then hopefully move on to build something more positive in its wake. That’s involved and continues to involve dozens of phone calls and engagements with Israelis and Palestinians [and other parties].” He insisted that by blocking the resolution the US was “not standing in the way of diplomacy” and questioned whether the statement would “actually advance the goal of ending the violence or moving to a better place.”

“Rotational” Military Presence in Iceland

An Icelandic reporter at the press conference inquired whether the US was considering establishing a more permanent military presence in Iceland and Greenland. Blinken stated the country planned “to continue to maintain the US presence on a persistent rotational basis,” adding that any changes to current operations “are closely co-ordinated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all NATO allies.” He added that the upcoming NATO summit in June would be an opportunity “to think about and work on NATO’s future.” Both Blinken and Guðlaugur Þór emphasised that the purpose of the Iceland-US alliance was defensive.

Goal of Peaceful Co-operation in Arctic

Throughout the press conference, Blinken underlined the importance of maintaining peace in the Arctic as it becomes an increasingly “strategic” area. According to Blinken, the Arctic “must remain an area of peaceful co-operation.” Blinken stated that he was looking forward to meeting Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later in the week and discussing the Arctic, among other issues. He expressed concern at “increased military activities” in the region on the part of Russia, saying they undermined the goal of peaceful co-operation. “I think what we need to avoid is a militarisation of the region,” Blinken stated. Guðlaugur added that the Arctic “should be a low-tension area like it has been.”

Read More: Iceland and the Arctic

Blinken’s agenda for the rest of the day includes meetings with Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson. He will also visit Hellisheiði geothermal power station, where he will learn about the CarbFix carbon fixation project.


Seal Pup Found in South Iceland Likely Far From Home

seal pup

Icelandic police took on an unusual project last Friday when they found a seal pup behaving strangely in Njarðvík harbour, Vísir reports. The seal was delivered to Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo, where upon examination by experts it was found to be malnourished and suffering from an eye infection. Its caretakers plan to release it back into the wild when it has regained its health.

Likely far from home

The pup has been identified as a ringed seal (pusa hispida), the smallest and most common seal found in the Arctic. “Ringed seals are pretty common guests in Iceland and we’ve dealt with them before in the zoo,” says Þorkell Heiðarsson, department head at the institution. “The ringed seal is a polar species that follows the ice edge around the Arctic, including north of Iceland.”

“It’s therefore clear that this pup is far south of its natural habitat,” Þorkell explains. “On the other hand, it’s well known that young ringed seals go wandering and are found along Iceland’s coast, usually in the north.” The pup in question appears to be less than a year old, and has lost more than 10kg (22lbs) since it was weaned. Þorkell says zoo staff are doing their best to fatten him up and hope it will be possible to release him into the wild once he is healthy.

Another pup found in Ireland

Þorkell notes that a ringed seal pup was rescued on the west coast of Ireland last week near Shannon. “It’s the first ringed seal to be found there in over 100 years. In times when sea ice is rapidly declining and along with it the habitat of Arctic animals, it’s not unlikely that competition for the limited resource of ice intensifies and more animals will wander. Whether this visitor is a consequence of this is entirely uncertain, as the species is, as previously stated, a fairly frequent visitor here.”

Cargo Port Profitability Depends On Global Warming

iceberg sea ice

A huge container port in North Iceland would only be profitable in 40-50 years – if global warming melts most of the sea ice in the arctic. Two Northeast Iceland municipalities plan to build an international container port in Finnafjörður to link Asia, Europe, and the eastern United States. A new report from the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies, however, suggests that the viability of the venture is questionable.

The warming climate has pushed Arctic sailing routes and their potential profitability into the spotlight. The North Iceland municipalities of Langanesbyggð and Vopnafjarðarhreppur have already signed a contract with German and Icelandic companies to build a transshipment port in Finnafjörður in an effort to take advantage of Arctic routes’ increasing accessibility. The port is a large venture: it would cover some 1,300 hectares (3,200 acres) and include 6km (3.7mi) of wharves. The project has already received ISK 18 million ($150,000/€133,000) in funding from the Ministry of Transport and Local Government.

“Never the most economic option”

A new report from the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies commissioned at the request of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs investigated whether Iceland would be an advantageous spot for servicing ships sailing through the Arctic. It explored, in particular, whether it would be a convenient location to move cargo from ice-strengthened ships (used to sail through the Arctic) to traditional, lighter ships which could complete the journey. The report compared Finnafjörður to Svalbard and Kirkenes in Norway for this purpose, as well as comparing the option of completing the journey to the Netherlands or Belgium on the same ship, without transferring cargo.

“Iceland is never the most economic option,” the report states. For some trade routes, it pays to not transship at all, and simply to sail on ice-strengthened ships to the end of the route.

Depends on continued warming

“If warming continues and sea ice continues to recede, so that conditions on the route straight across the North Pole will eventually be good, it makes sense to use that route.” The report continues to state that such a route is short and has no depth restrictions, meaning very large vessels could be sailed across it to take advantage of economies of scale. In that case, “Iceland may have a competitive advantage due to the good harbour position in Finnafjörður and the depth restrictions in other ports. But this is a long-term prospect, probably 40-50 years.”

The report may not be troubling to those behind the project, however, as the design and construction of the harbour are expected to take decades to complete.

US Considering Free Trade Agreement With Iceland

Minister of Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson and US Vice president Mike Pence led a US-Icelandic Business Roundtable.

The Trump administration is considering a free trade agreement with Iceland, Axios reports. This comes on the heels of Vice President Mike Pence’s Iceland visit, during which Pence warned Iceland not to rely on Chinese technology and praised their decision not to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, although no such decision had been made.

According to the Axios report, it isn’t Iceland’s economy that’s tempting the Washington leaders, but the country’s strategic location. The President’s national security team has apparently emphasised the importance of investing in the region. The idea of a trade agreement was floated at a Senate GOP lunch last Tuesday, according to Axios, where Pence reportedly told those in attendance that a working group was exploring a deal and that he was “amenable” to the idea. Minister of Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson has made no secret of his wish for a free trade agreement with the US.

According to Axios, the intention of the trade agreement would be to encourage an alliance with the US, instead of Iceland building relationships with Russia and China. Iceland has had a free trade agreement with China since 2014 and when Vice President Pence congratulated Iceland on not participating in the Belt and Road initiative, both the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs quickly corrected him, stating that while Iceland hadn’t yet agreed to participate, no decision to decline participation had been made. China’s Ambassador to Iceland Jin Zhijian has called the Vice President’s comments on the Belt and Road Initiative and Huawei “malicious slander” and “fake news.”

Prime Minister Katrín to Meet with Mike Pence on Wednesday

US Vice President Mike Pence.

US Vice President Mike Pence can look forward to a meeting with Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir on his official visit to the country this week, RÚV reports. Katrín was expected to miss Pence due to her attendance at a convention of Nordic trade unions in Malmö, Sweden. This lack of a meeting attracted attention in Iceland and abroad, with some accusing the Icelandic Prime Minister of intentionally shunning the meeting.

Katrín firmly dispelled such rumours in an interview yesterday on Icelandic television. “US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came here and we had a good meeting earlier this year. Where I actually discussed Artic issues, and climate issues in particular, and my particular concern, nuclear disarmament, which I actually discussed with Donald Trump himself at a NATO meeting last year,” she stated, adding that her approach to international relations has never been to “only speak to those one agrees with, as I wouldn’t speak to many people that way.”

Meetings focus on national security

According to Reuters’ sources, Pence’s meetings with Icelandic officials are expected to be “national-security focused,” with the US Vice President planning to discuss “incursions” into the Arctic Circle by Russia and China. It was revealed recently that the United States Air Force will increase their activities significantly in Iceland, investing in facilities at Keflavík airport for around ISK 7 billion ($56m/€50m). The construction will ensure facilities to operate 18 to 24 fighter jets from Iceland.

Katrín concerned about military presence

Katrín expressed her concern at increased mobilisation in the Arctic in yesterday’s interview. “I worry about this increased mobilisation no matter where it comes from. It’s not just about the United States but also Russia and China because I don’t think this is the way to peaceful relations,” Katrín stated. “It’s a particular concern when the largest threat we face is not of the military kind, rather climate change.”

Katrín and Pence will meet on Wednesday evening. Pence will also meet with President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson during his visit.

Icelandic President Meets With Putin

Guðni Th. Jóhannesson in Russia.

President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson is conducting a two-day visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he is participating in the International Arctic Forum, RÚV reports. The President’s trip also includes a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow, in the company of Icelandic Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Kristján Þór Júlíusson.

The main theme of this year’s forum is “The Arctic: An Ocean of Opportunity,” and topics of discussion include natural resources, environmental safety, and indigenous populations. The event is also attended by President of Finland Sauli Niinistö, Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg, and Prime Minister of Sweden Stefan Löfven, each of whom will be meeting with Putin.

Today Guðni visited Victory Square in St. Petersburg, where he placed a wreath on a monument which commemorates the Nazi siege of Leningrad on behalf of the Icelandic nation.

Prime Minister Calls for Weapon-Free Arctic

Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir.