First US Navy Submarine Service Stop in Icelandic Waters

USS San Juan (SSN 751) alongside an Icelandic Coast Guard ship

The American nuclear-powered submarine USS San Juan visited Iceland yesterday for a brief service stop in the waters outside of Garðskagi, Southwest Iceland. As per a US Navy press release, San Juan does not carry nuclear weapons. Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörd Gylfadóttir announced on April 18 that nuclear-powered submarines of the US Navy would be authorised to make a brief service visit in Iceland to receive supplies and exchange crew members.

This decision by the Minister for Foreign Affairs is part of the Icelandic government’s policy to support increased monitoring and response capacity of Allied countries in the North Atlantic. In recent years, the Icelandic and US governments have increased cooperation to strengthen situational awareness and readiness in the North Atlantic.

A founding member of NATO, Iceland has hosted the organisation’s exercises in recent years. In 2019, Iceland upped its defence budget by 37%. Last year, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir announced another increase to the budget in response to the war in Ukraine, with a special emphasis on cyber security. Katrín also announced an increase in Iceland’s NATO funding at the time.

Iceland Authorises US Submarines in Coastal Waters

Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

US Navy nuclear-powered submarines will be allowed to stop close to Iceland and the first one is expected soon. Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has specifically stated to the US authorities that these submarines cannot carry nuclear weapons in Iceland’s territorial waters.

According to Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, this decision is in line with Icelandic authorities’ policy to support increased surveillance by NATO states, increasing the security of marine infrastructure such as marine telecommunications cables in the ocean around Iceland. The frequency of the visits will be assessed according to need. The authorisation for submarines is not restricted to a specific period and there will likely be a few visits per year. Each time a submarine approaches, it musest request permission. Þórdís Kolbrún told Vísir that the decision was not only made to increase telecommunication security but also to fulfil obligations to NATO and defence in the North Atlantic.

The first submarine is expected soon. It will be allowed to restock supplies and bring on new crew members a few kilometres off the coast of Iceland but will not dock as Iceland doesn’t have the harbour infrastructure to support submarines. Þórdís states that the submarines will stop outside the Reykjanes peninsula.

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister stress that foreign military vessels’ arrival in Iceland is conditional on the respective country’s knowing and respecting Iceland’s National Security Policy which states that Iceland and Icelandic waters will not host nuclear weapons. This position has been reiterated in the Foreign Minister’s note to US authorities. Submarines authorised to stop in Icelandic waters will not carry nuclear weapons nor will they be fitted for such weapons. When asked if Icelandic authorities had any guarantee US authorities would comply with Iceland’s demands, Þórdís Kolbrún replies that it is a matter of trust.  “We base this on our solid communication with US authorities. These kinds of submarines don’t carry nuclear weapons. We have issued clear declarations and a clear policy and we’ve gotten confirmation that the Americans will honour it. Norway has a similar policy and their cooperation has been without issue for decades,” Þórdís stated.

All submarines in the service of the US Military are nuclear-powered. All seafaring vessels are authorised to cross Icelandic waters on peaceful missions, but foreign governments must apply to the foreign ministry if they want their vessels to stop Iceland’s territorial waters.

Deep North Episode 16: What a Riot

NATO protest 1949

On March 30, 1949, a large crowd convened behind a school in central Reykjavík. They were protesting the government’s decision to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organi­sation, then in its infancy. Once a sizeable throng had formed, the group marched on Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament. They were met by a group of NATO supporters who had surrounded the parliament building, in­tending to defend it. A riot erupted between the two groups, who only dispersed after police deployed tear gas. Five days later, NATO was officially formed, with Iceland among its founding members.

Permanent Military Presence in Iceland Not on Government’s Agenda

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir NATO summit madrid

Iceland’s National Security Council has no plans to request permanent military presence in Iceland, according to the country’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Katrín told RÚV that Iceland is, however, reviewing its national security policy and working on an updated risk assessment in light of the war in Ukraine.

The security environment in Europe is in a period of change following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has led to Finland and Sweden applying for NATO membership, a move Iceland’s government has supported.

NATO member countries regularly monitor the airspace over Iceland, and increasing that monitoring is a consideration. The Prime Minister says, however, there are no plans to reinstate permanent military presence in Iceland.

Both Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir are currently attending a NATO summit in Madrid. “We have not been discussing a permanent military presence in Iceland, that we have not been discussing,” Katrín told RÚV reporters, adding that the current priorities of Iceland’s security policy were twofold: reviewing security policy and updating the risk assessment for Iceland.

The current security policy was implmented in 2016, and although the Prime Minister believes it has served well, there are “certain points that need to be fine-tuned.” The risk assessment focuses mostly on how Iceland can increase its preparedness, and Katrín emphasised that this does not involve any sort of permanent military presence.

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stated the government intends to increase investment at Keflavík Airport, taking into account NATO’s security priorities. Those priorities, however, are mainly focused on the east and south of NATO’s area of influence, Þórdís stated.

As for a permanent military presence in Iceland, Þórdís stated: “It’s not on the agenda.”

Iceland is a founding member of NATO but does not have its own military. US forces maintained a permanent presence in the country from World War II until 2006.

Iceland Would Support Finland Joining NATO, Prime Minister Says

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has stated that the country would support Finland and Sweden if they decide to join NATO, RÚV reports. Support for Finland joining NATO has more than doubled among the general public since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Katrín stated that Iceland’s Security Council is updating its risk assessment for Iceland.

Katrín stated that the re-evaluation is “Based on both the events in Ukraine and what could possibly follow: that is, the possible accession of Finland and Sweden to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. So this work is ongoing.”

Katrín travelled to Finland earlier this month, where she met with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (pictured above). The two leaders discussed “Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, the European security situation and deepening Nordic cooperation,” according to a tweet from the Finnish government.

When asked about Russia’s potential reaction to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, Katrín stated: “We see that they do not take this well in public discussion. But the way I look at it the Finns and Swedes make their decisions and we will stand with them in their decisions.”

Iceland to Increase Defence Spending, PM Announces

PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir attended a NATO meeting in Brussels yesterday. Speaking to RÚV after the meeting, the PM stated that the government would be increasing its defence budget, with special emphasis on cyber security.

A short and long-term response to the war

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir attended an extraordinary NATO meeting in Brussels yesterday alongside Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir. The aim of the meeting was to discuss NATO’s short and long-term response to the war in Ukraine.

“We condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the strongest possible terms,” a statement released after the meeting by the Heads of State and Government of the 30 NATO Allies read. “We call on President Putin to immediately stop this war and withdraw military forces from Ukraine, and call on Belarus to end its complicity, in line with the Aggression Against Ukraine Resolution adopted at the UN General Assembly of 2 March 2022.”

Increased humanitarian support

In an interview with RÚV after the meeting, Katrín stated that although Iceland would not be participating directly in NATO operations, it would be offering humanitarian support.

“We have decided to ramp up humanitarian support. That is, to increase our support even more. We’ve tripled our spending since the start of the invasion.”

As noted on the government’s website, Iceland will be contributing an additional ISK 150 million ($1.1 million / € 1 million) to humanitarian aid. The authorities have already spent more than ISK 500 ($3.9 million / € 3.5 million) million since the war began.

Increased sea and air traffic is expected

Given that NATO has decided to activate its defence plans, Katrín Jakobsdóttir also expects increased traffic above and around Iceland. NATO’s defence plans involve, among other things, the deployment of “significant air and naval assets.”

“Defence plans have been activated for all NATO zones,” Katrín observed, “including areas to which Iceland and Norway belong. So we can expect increased air and sea traffic.”

Iceland will also be increasing its NATO funding.

“We will increase our spending over the next few years, and that spending will be focused on cyber security, which is also an area of emphasis within NATO,” Katrín told RÚV.

Iceland to Take Part in Sanctions Against Russia, Ministers Say

Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Iceland’s Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and President publicly condemned Russian military action in Ukraine this morning. Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, discussed the development during question period today, when opposition MP Helga Vala Helgadóttir urged the Justice Minister to declare Ukraine an unsafe country and accept refugees from the country in Iceland. Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stated Iceland would take “full part in international sanctions” on Russia.

Iceland’s National Security Council will meet today to discuss the Russian attack on Ukraine, RÚV reports. The meeting was scheduled prior to the attack launched by Russia last night. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that the most pessimistic predictions of events in Russia and Ukraine have come to pass.

“The Icelandic government and I condemn this attack, of course. This is a serious breach of international law and truly looks as if the worst predictions in this matter have come to pass,” Katrín stated. Asked about Icelandic authorities’ response, she stated that Iceland would collaborate with its allies and NATO, of which it is a founding member.

Unclear whether Russian ambassador will stay

Þórdís Kolbrún was asked whether authorities would consider deporting Russia’s ambassador to Iceland. “We called him to a meeting here yesterday and reviewed our case. Now the priority is really to support what needs to be supported within NATO, monitor closely and review what is happening.  As for the Russian embassy here, it will remain to be seen,” Þórdís stated. The Russian Embassy to Iceland criticised statements from the President of Iceland and the Minister of Foreign Affairs expressing support in Ukraine’s territorial integrity earlier this month, calling them “one-sided” and “subjective.”

During the Icelandic Parliament’s question period this morning, opposition MP Helga Vala Helgadóttir urged Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson to declare Ukraine an unsafe country today and ease the arrival of refugees from the country. The Minister answered that the issue “should be reviewed” at this point, but made no firm declarations, Kjarninn reports. Jón’s recent actions concerning asylum seekers, including proposed amendments to the Immigration Act, have been criticised by human rights organisations and medical professionals in Iceland.

Russia Gives No Explanation of Navy Ships off Iceland’s Coast

Russia ship navy military severomorsk

In late summer of this year, a convoy of Russian military ships set off from the northern port of Severomorsk. The expedition was intended to be a routine Arctic voyage, but it did not end up that way. Three ships from the convoy took an unexpected turn west, sailing close to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago and then into Icelandic waters on August 20, RÚV reports. The ships made their presence clear to Icelandic authorities, yet Russia has not answered their inquiries as to why the ships entered Icelandic waters, or why the destroyer Severomorsk circumnavigated the country.

A press release from the Russian Ministry of Defence states that the ships were directed to Iceland to respond to and monitor NATO warships and unexpected air exercises in the northeastern part of the Norwegian Sea, east of Iceland. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson said it was far-fetched that Russia needed to carry out military exercises near Iceland to defend itself. “But they of course have their own approach to international affairs, as we know,” Guðlaugur stated. Still, he added, it was not surprising that Russia would use NATO exercises as an excuse for such activity.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Guðlaugur Þór in Reykjavík last spring, where he expressed his concern about the military conduct of neighbouring countries, stating that “There are unresolved issues related to militarisation and reconstruction in Norway and the Baltic states.”

Iceland’s defence policy is founded on its membership in NATO and the 1951 defence agreement signed with the United States. Iceland has greatly increased its defence spending in recent years, increasing spending by 37% between 2017 and 2019. In its 2020 budget, the US Air Force allocated ISK 7 billion [$56.2 million, €49.5 million] to construction projects at Iceland’s Keflavík Airport.

US Stealth Bombers Leave Iceland Following Extended Deployment

B-2 spirit stealth bomber

Three B-2 Spirit stealth bombers that arrived at Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport on August 23, 2021 spent an extended period in the country, Stars and Stripes reports. According to the outlet, Iceland was used as a new launch point for bomber missions to Europe. “this is the first time the B-2 has operated continuously from Iceland,” Lt. Col. Matthew Howard is quoted as saying. “Having the B-2s in the theater in Iceland allows us to respond to any potential crisis or challenge across the globe.” The three bombers returned to their home base in the United States on September 11 once their Keflavík mission was completed.

Large defence investments in Keflavík

Iceland does not have its own military. Its defence policy is founded on the country’s membership in NATO and the 1951 Defence Agreement signed by Iceland and the United States. In 2019, the Icelandic government increased its defence budget by 37%, citing four large projects as the main expenses. The largest proportion of the funding goes toward operation of Keflavík Airport and the Icelandic Coast Guard.

The US Military has also invested millions in renovations at the Naval Air Station in Keflavík to “support NATO air surveillance missions and the collective defense and military activities in this crucial North Atlantic location,” according to a press release from the United States Air Force.

Growing strategic interest in Arctic

Iceland is strategically positioned at the edge of the Arctic, which has become a region of growing interest for powerful nations, not only in relation to national security but also for its economic possibilities and vulnerability to climate change. Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir chairs the Left-Green Movement, which opposes the country’s membership in NATO. In 2020, she stated that “permanent [military] presence or a new military base in Iceland, is out of the question.”

During an official visit to Iceland earlier this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the United States 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 Arctic “must remain an area of peaceful co-operation.”

Status of Afghans Offered Asylum Iceland Uncertain

Ministry for Foreign Affairs

An estimated 120 Afghans have been offered asylum in Iceland but thus far, officials have only managed to get in contact with 40 of these individuals. RÚV reports that among those Iceland is opening its doors to are Afghans who have worked for NATO and also students who have studied in Iceland as part of GRÓ, the Gender Equality Studies and Training Programme, which operates under the auspices of UNESCO.

“The situation [in Afghanistan] is very difficult, to say the least, both in the country in general and also at the airport [in Kabul],” said Sveinn H. Guðmarsson, information officer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I can’t totally say how many people have managed to get to the airport and through the gate. But we have been in contact with around 40 people.”

Sveinn said that it is not yet possible to say when the first Afghan asylees will arrive in Iceland, but authorities are working against the clock. “…[T]he Taliban have stated very clearly that the foreign force that is keeping the airport running will not get any further extensions beyond the end of this month. So the window is closing.” He said that staff have been working through the night to facilitate the process.

Sveinn added that the main challenge has been getting people to the airport. News outlets such as the BBC have reported that some Afghans who were set to leave the country have “abandoned their plans for now…nervous after the Taliban said they didn’t want Afghanistan’s people to leave.” Thus far, however, Sveinn said that he is not aware of any Afghans who have been invited to come to Iceland deciding not to do so out of fear for their safety.

Sveinn also noted that while the current number of Afghans who are assumed to be coming to Iceland is around 120, this figure, which was arranged in collaboration with NATO, is by no means fixed. There are no specific names or ID numbers attached to that figure, he explained. “That’s just a reference number.”