Iceland’s Role in Transatlantic Security Growing

14 May 2019

Brussels / Reykjavik, 14 May 2019 - Iceland faces a security dilemma: how to keep the High North an area of low tensions as Russia builds up its military presence and China’s Arctic ambitions grow. The country’s current strategy relies on a dual-track approach combining realistic awareness of the threat on the one hand, and preservation of the Arctic Council as the main forum for regional dialogue on non-security issues on the other.  

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland, told a visiting delegation of legislators from NATO member countries that Iceland is no longer sheltered from big power conflicts by its geography. Therefore, in recent years, the country has increased its contribution to NATO’s common defence. It also welcomes NATO’s enhanced focus on North Atlantic security. 

While remaining the only Ally without an armed forces and Ministry of Defence, Iceland is investing in new defence and security capabilities and sending more personnel to NATO structures and missions. Crucially, Iceland serves as the Alliance’s outpost in the North Atlantic. US forces, having left Iceland in 2006, are now returning to the island on a rotational basis to enhance the monitoring of the so-called GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-UK) gap. A network of US and Icelandic assets – including Boeing P8 maritime patrol aircraft, coast guard vessels, helicopters and radars – monitor the increased Russian aerial and submarine activity in the region as well as the state of undersea fibre cables. 

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and intervention in Syria as well as Moscow’s growing military activity in the Arctic have heightened the Icelandic society’s sense of alertness and appreciation of the relevance for Icelandic security of the Article 5 collective defence clause in the North Atlantic Treaty. At the same time, however, some Icelandic interlocutors appealed to the big Arctic stakeholders to refrain from escalatory activities in the High North. As one expert put it: “If you want to flex your muscles, please take it outside”. There is a wide consensus in Iceland that the Arctic Council – the chairmanship of which Iceland has just assumed – should remain the main pillar of regional cooperation and confidence-building in the Arctic. 

Icelandic interlocutors noted that China’s interest in the Arctic is becoming increasingly assertive as the North-East passage opens up for navigation. China is reportedly seeking to establish a foothold in the remote but strategically important north-eastern region of Iceland. China already operates a scientific laboratory there. One expert urged NATO to discuss the strategic implications of China’s growing presence in the Arctic. 

While some sectors of Iceland’s economy might benefit from global warming, Iceland is concerned about the long-term effects of climate change, including on the acidity of the sea and on the Gulf Stream. Iceland is already relying almost exclusively on renewable sources – hydro and geothermal – to produce electricity and heating. However, it has set further ambitious goals for the future. Thus, authorities are discussing investment in wind power. Iceland also plans to become carbon-neutral by 2040 and switch to 100% electric transport by as early as 2030. 

The visit of two NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) sub-committees – on Democratic Governance (CDSDG) and on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation – took place on 8-10 May. The delegation consisted of 21 legislators from 12 NATO countries and was led by CDSDG Chairman and NATO PA Vice-President Vitalino Canas (Portugal). NATO PA President Madeleine Moon (UK) also attended the visit. The delegation met with President of Iceland Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, Minister of Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, members of the Icelandic parliament and independent experts. NATO Parliamentarians visited the Keflavik Air Base, Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant and Þór offshore patrol vessel of the Icelandic Coast Guard.