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Participation in Landmark NATO Exercise Reveals Iceland's Dilemma

By Lowana Veal

Photo credit: NATO

REYKJAVIK (IDN) – Iceland, the most sparsely populated country in Europe, has no standing army. But it is a founding member of the 29-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and is therefore taking part in Trident Juncture 2018, the largest NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War in December 1991.

Briefing the media on October 24, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, the exercise includes around 65 ships, 250 aircraft, 10,000 vehicles and 50,000 personnel. In addition to all NATO Allies, Finland and Sweden are also participating.

While the main phase of Trident Juncture began in Norway on October 25, it was kicked off in Iceland six days earlier, when about 120 military personnel were airlifted to practice an attack on the Icelandic Coastguard headquarters. Iceland's elite counter-terrorism unit Viking Squad also took part.

In conjunction with an organizational meeting for Trident Juncture on October 19-20, ten naval warships from the U.S., UK, Denmark and Canada berthed in Reykjavik, with 6,000 personnel on board.

While some joined in the meeting, around 200 marines were transported to the Thjorsardalur nature reserve in South Iceland on the October 19 and about 300 the following day apparently to experience "winter conditions". Though the exercise mostly consisted of erecting and dismantling tents in the windy weather.

No matter how the exercise is worded officially, Left-Green MP Kolbeinn Ottarsson Proppe said, in reality it is an exercise in killing other people. "We Icelanders can utilize the unique circumstances in which we live, a country without a military in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, to be a model for other societies in peace issues, refuse to take part in any military jamboree, and be a beacon for peaceful communication in a world where a downturn seems to be approaching in various international relations," he said.

The Campaign Against Militarism organised a group excursion into Thjorsardalur to coincide with NATO's venture. On way there, biologist Thorvaldur Orn Arnason informed the group about the reforestation that had been ongoing in the delicate Thjorsardalur area, where over 20,000 birch saplings had been planted over the last 15 years.

Despite assurances from the Foreign Affairs Ministry that "particular care will be taken that no environmental damage will occur," the NATO personnel were unaware of the existence of the birch saplings – which, because of the climatic conditions in the area, are not at all high.

At times, the marines were seen running as a group from one place to another and back again, with complete disregard for where they were treading. "There is nothing innocent about the military and it's preposterous that delicate Icelandic nature should become a military playground,” declared the Left-Green Proppe.

In fact, a team from the Icelandic Forest Service was dispatched immediately after October 20 to investigate the damage that might have been done to birch saplings. The team found that the situation was not as bad as feared.

"We found one tree that someone had ripped up and replanted. Trunks and branches have broken off from some trees. But the majority of trees will recover from the damage, as birch is very tenacious and grows out of new buds if it breaks," reported Hreinn Oskarsson, Head of Forest Strategy at the Icelandic Forest Service, after returning from Thjorsardalur.

"The forest has not been permanently damaged by the military exercise, and birch will grow in coming years and bear seeds," he added.

Trident Juncture is taking place against the backdrop of a gradual growth in the importance of military matters in Iceland in recent years.

The joint declaration between Iceland and Norway on defence cooperation, dated March 2017, states: "Iceland is increasing funding for defence-related activities and is committed to providing host nation support for Allies operating in the region." Attention was drawn to Trident Juncture "focusing on the defence of Norway, Iceland and the North-Atlantic."

This is somewhat embarrassing for Iceland's Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, whose Left-Green Party is against the Nordic island country's NATO membership. The party reiterated its opposition to NATO and to Trident Juncture at its recent convention. "Unfortunately we are members of NATO and now this fact has exposed us to military exercises," Proppe said.

The Left-Greens are bound to abide by the three-party coalition's National Security Policy, which obliges the government "To ensure that Iceland’s membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains a key pillar in its defence and the main forum for Western cooperation in which Iceland participates on civil premises, in order to strengthen its own security and that of other NATO members."

Nevertheless, as the Icelandic public service broadcaster RUV reported, at the opening of the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik on October 19, Prime Minister Jakobsdottir told some 2,000 delegates from over 60 countries that she wants "the global North" to become a weapons-free zone.

Significantly, the start of Trident Juncture coincided with the closing days of Reykjavik Peace Days, a week-long event consisting of manifold activities. One of these events was the poster exhibition 'From War Culture to Peace Culture' in a Reykjavik shopping mall.

Designed by the Tokyo-based Buddhist association Soka Gakkai, the exhibition has been shown in more than 230 cities since 2007. It highlights the importance of eliminating nuclear weapons, ensuring the safety of humanity, and strengthening work related to peace.

Another event was the annual lighting of Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace Tower on Videy island, a five-minute boat ride from the warships.

Iceland and its waters were declared a nuclear-free zone some years ago, and there was some debate over whether the warships in Reykjavik carried nuclear weapons of any sort. The National Security Policy does not completely exclude the possibility of nuclear weapons in or around Iceland, as it states: "… Iceland and its territorial waters shall be declared free from nuclear weapons, subject to Iceland´s international commitments."

When asked specifically whether or not the warships carried nuclear weapons, the Foreign Affairs department pointed to the clause in the National Security Policy, saying that the countries participating in Trident Juncture were both aware of and respecting of Iceland’s policy, and that the aspects of Trident Juncture taking place in Iceland did not warrant the presence of nuclear weapons in any way.

The warships left for Norway on October 21, where the military exercises began on October 25 in earnest and will continue until November 7. The exercises will be focused on defence against an imagined enemy.

When these have concluded, Icelandic authorities will take part in NATO control centre exercises in Stavanger to discuss Internet security and civilian protection. Because, as the Trident Juncture website says: "It is happening in the air, on land, at sea and in cyberspace." [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 October 2018]

Photo credit: NATO

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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