On 30 March, 1949, a large crowd convened behind a school in central Reykjavík. They were protesting the government’s decision to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, then in its infancy. One 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 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.
Peace vs. protection
Few issues have been as violently and enduringly controversial among Icelanders as its membership in NATO. Many Icelanders see their nation as peace-loving and neutral, insisting it has no place in the organization. Iceland in fact has no standing army and joined NATO on the condition it would not be required to form one. Some, however, see membership as a necessary evil or even a positive contribution to the nation’s otherwise bare-bones approach to national security.
Iceland Defense Force
In 1951, the Iceland Defense Force was created at NATO’s request. It was a military command of the US armed forces which were intended to provide for the defense of Iceland. The US army established a base at Keflavík which would remain active into the next century. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the US planned to abandon the base. The two countries eventually signed an agreement to maintain a small contingent of aircraft and a helicopter rescue squad at Keflavík. In 2006, to many Icelanders’ surprise, US forces unilaterally withdrew from Iceland. It was a blow to Icelandic NATO supporters, who felt the country would have more say in the decision.
Political and popular support for NATO and the US army presence has flip-flopped throughout the years. In the 1950s and 60s, centre-left political parties twice campaigned on the promise of terminating the Defense Agreement, both times backing down once they were in government. When a leftist government proposed closing the US base at Keflavík in 1974, NATO supporters launched a petition which gathered 55,000 signatures, or a quarter of the country’s population at that time. The Anti-War Association has been protesting the army presence since the early 50s, popularizing the protest slogan “Ísland úr NATO og herinn burt!” (En. Iceland out of NATO and the army out).
Minding the gap
Iceland’s geographical position has proven beneficial to NATO throughout its history. It is the best possible base for overseeing the GIUK Gap, a naval chokepoint between Greenland, Iceland, and the UK and a strategic gateway for Russian subs to access the Atlantic Ocean. The base proved crucial during the Cold War, as all European Allies’ defense plans relied on supplies and reinforcement from the US relayed across the Atlantic.
Today, growing tension between Russia and NATO members has increased the strategic importance of the North Atlantic yet again. The US has reactivated a fleet to patrol the North Atlantic and the US East Coast and has allocated USD 214m to construct and renovate installations in Eastern and Northern Europe in response to the perceived threat. The budget sets aside USD 17.1m for renovating Navy hangars at Keflavík to accommodate submarine-locating Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has not expressed opposition to the decision, despite her party, the Left-Green Movement, being categorically opposed to all military involvement in Iceland.
Player or pawn
Icelanders expressed criticism of their government last April when the country signed a NATO declaration in support of air strikes in Syria carried out by NATO members. Borgar Þór Einarsson, political advisor to the foreign minister, insisted Iceland’s only other choice would have been to resign from the organization. “Everyone who discusses security issues in Iceland needs to realize that there are two options, that is to resign from NATO or be in NATO and follow the rules of the game,” he stated.
Iceland’s relationship with NATO forces the small country to consider how much influence it truly holds on the global playing field. For a nation with a fierce sense of its own independence, it is an uncomfortable question, yet it remains as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago. One thing is certain: in a world where distances are shrinking, no country can remain an island.
March 30, 1949 Riots between pro- and anti-NATO groups ignite outside the parliament.
April 4, 1949 NATO is officially formed, with Iceland among its 12 founding nations.
1951 A military command of the US armed forces, known as the Iceland Defense Force, is created at the request of NATO to protect the island.
1950s-60s Centre-left political parties twice declare intent to terminate the Defense Agreement but back down once in government.
1974 When the leftist government proposes closing the US base at Keflavík, NATO supporters launch a petition which gathers 55,000 signatures (a quarter of the population at the time).
1980s As Soviet military presence in the North Atlantic steadily grows, US air force fighter-interceptors at Keflavík increase from 12 to 18.
1989 The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union effectively dissolves Soviet threat in the North Atlantic. The US plans to withdraw from Iceland due to financial constraints.
1994 US and Iceland sign the Agreed Minute, a statute in which the US military agrees to maintain 4-6 interceptor aircraft in Iceland and a helicopter rescue squad.
2006 US forces withdraw unilaterally from Iceland, a blow to pro-NATO Icelanders.
2016-17 US Army prepares to renovate Keflavík air base to accommodate submarine-locating Poseidon aircraft as part of a project to fortify bases across Europe.
This and other articles can be found in the June-July issue of Iceland Review magazine. Subscribe here.
Note: A previous version of the above timeline incorrectly stated the US Army was preparing to re-occupy the Keflavík base, but has since been corrected.