Center for Strategic Decision Research


The Security of Iceland

His Excellency Björn Bjarnason
Minister of Education, Science, and Culture of Iceland


It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk about the security of Iceland in conjunction with the Defense Ministers of Estonia and Lithuania discussing the security of their countries. There are many similarities among our countries' 20th-century histories. All three of our countries fought for their independence. Iceland had the good fortune to be geographically close to friendly powers who recognized its independence and assisted the country in safeguarding its security, instead of disregarding its sovereignty and doing their utmost to uproot its culture and history. Iceland confirmed its profound understanding of the Baltic nations' desire for independence by becoming the first country to recognize their sovereignty when the Soviet Union fell apart.

Iceland is one of five Nordic countries that, together with Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Äland, make up the Nordic Council, a vigorous regional forum that lately has taken particular measures to strengthen cooperation with the three Baltic States. During the Cold War, foreign affairs and security issues were not on the Nordic Council's agenda, since three of the constituent countries (Denmark, Iceland, and Norway) were members of NATO but the other two (Finland and Sweden) were neutral. In recent years, however, Council meetings have been taken up with these issues just as much as with others. Iceland, for its part, has declared its support of the Baltic States' membership in NATO.


In May 1940, after Germany occupied both Denmark and Norway, Iceland was occupied by British forces to prevent Germany from reaching Iceland and thus gaining a key position in the North Atlantic. In July 1941, a trilateral agreement was concluded among the United States, Britain, and Iceland that enabled an American force to guard Iceland's security and relieve the British, who were fully engaged with difficult military tasks elsewhere. The United States thus took an active part in the battle for the North Atlantic via Iceland almost half a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. An important deciding factor in Iceland's gaining its independence from Denmark in 1944 was the United States government's readiness to recognize Iceland's independence.

This story is in marked contrast with the Baltic States' experience and relations with their neighbor, the Soviet Union, during and following the Second World War. While Iceland was taking its first steps toward independence, the Soviet Union was tightening its grip on the Baltic States and ruthlessly crushing their leaders' efforts to speak out, as well as attacking the history and culture of their people.

Iceland became a founding member of NATO in 1949, and in 1951 concluded a bilateral defense agreement with the United States. A celebration marking that treaty's 50-year anniversary was held on May 5, 2001. Iceland's continuing defense association with the United States has been excellent, although it has often been the subject of heated political dispute and debate, up to the time the Cold War ended.

Because of new technology and Soviet military expansion, both by sea and air, from its bases on the Kola peninsula, security developments in the North Atlantic gradually increased Iceland's strategic importance. The United States carried out anti-submarine surveillance as well as air surveillance of Soviet planes from its base in Keflavík, Iceland, using state-of-the-art equipment and two AWACS planes. In the eighties, construction of four radar stations with state-of-the-art equipment strengthened Iceland's air defense.


Iceland has never maintained its own military forces and indeed, up to the Second World War, relied on other countries recognizing its neutrality. Iceland believed that its distance from the European and North American mainlands would guarantee its independence. However, World War II and the Cold War brought home the fact that we could no longer rely on our country's remoteness to ensure protection, and, since the end of the Cold War, our government policy has been to maintain strong defense cooperation with the United States.

Early in the nineties, on behalf of the Icelandic government, I took part in talks with our allies in Europe and the United States, as well as with NATO leadership, concerning a possible change in Iceland's security policy and our defense relationship with the United States. The outcome was a unanimous decision that the defense agreement between Iceland and the United States should not be tampered with, but that Iceland would have to adapt to changes within NATO, including considering taking part in NATO peacekeeping missions.

These changes have now come to pass. There are currently 2,000 American troops based in Keflavík, down from about 5,000 in the 1950s. The implementation of the defense agreement has also changed; there is now less need for interceptors to be based in Keflavík. In fact, there has been only one incident of fighter jets intercepting a Russian plane near Iceland since the Soviet Union ceased to exist. That incident occurred in 1999, when two Russian aircraft, based on the Kola peninsula, practiced a missile attack over the North Atlantic.

In talks with Iceland, the United States has also expressed an interest in reducing the number of F-15 fighter jets based in Keflavík, and even in removing them all to bases in the United States. The Icelandic government has opposed these ideas, considering it important for fighter jets to be based in Keflavík to demonstrate the U.S. defense commitment to Iceland in no uncertain terms. In 1994, the two sides agreed to retain at least four fighters in Keflavík.

It has been argued that it would be generally unwise, in both political and strategic terms, to have no fighter planes stationed in Iceland. The reasoning is that, if fighter jets are needed in Iceland because of a crisis situation, sending them to Keflavík might escalate tensions and increase the risk of conflict. Making a political decision to send planes to a place where none were based before would also be more difficult than increasing the number of planes already in place. Although we hope that the risk of tension and conflict in the North Atlantic has evaporated, it is probably just as naïve to rely on this being the case as it was to believe that our country's remoteness would guarantee its eternal neutrality.

Iceland's defense agreement with the United States is in effect until terminated by either government. Neither party is interested in such termination, since the agreement enhances the security interests of both countries.

I also believe that the defense agreement, and the close and friendly relations it fosters between Iceland and the United States, have played a large part in the fact that Iceland has never applied for membership in the European Union. The fall of the Soviet Union created a unique opportunity for Europe's neutral countries (Austria, Finland, and Sweden) to link up with a larger European political entity by joining the European Union and thus abandoning their neutrality.

As long as its security is guaranteed by the United States, however, Iceland does not need to establish a close political or security relationship with another powerful partner in order to make clear its place in the world. It should also be noted that Iceland, along with Norway and Liechtenstein, has negotiated a free trade agreement with the EU; is party to EU programs on education, science, and culture; and signed the Schengen agreement on open borders for travelers within Europe. But application for EU membership is not on Iceland's agenda, and no Icelandic political party has EU membership in its manifesto. The membership issue is of course discussed politically, but there are no special interests encouraging Icelandic membership in the EU.


There are two issues that the Icelandic government would like to emphasize in the present debate on security: first, Iceland does not wish to become isolated when ESDP is implemented. Our security interests involve first and foremost the maintenance of the transatlantic link. The worst possible scenario for Iceland would be a split on security and defense issues between the United States and the EU, but this could also mean that the bilateral defense agreement with the United States would become more important to both parties.

Second, the Icelandic government is working to increase its share in the NATO peacekeeping mission in the Balkans. Although Iceland's share is small compared to that of other countries, it is considerable in Icelandic terms. Our goal is to establish a 100-man Crisis Response Unit under the Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

It is my personal opinion that Iceland must decide whether or not to shoulder greater responsibility for its own defense and security. The dangers we face are constantly changing and we cannot expect the United States to always be prepared to assume all responsibility for confronting them for us. I therefore believe that Iceland should consider strengthening its security by increasing its own capabilities. Iceland's contribution to NATO was very important during the Cold War, though it did not include military forces, but ensuring its position as a good member of NATO and as a U.S. ally was not accomplished without internal conflict. Success was achieved, however, and Iceland must also succeed in safeguarding its security with its own means, now and in the future. The challenge lies in continuing to make the right decisions, in accordance with the particular demands and time.



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