Viewing cable 09REYKJAVIK45, ICELAND: FM WARNS OF POSSIBLE DEFENSE BUDGET CUTS
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|09REYKJAVIK45||2009-02-27 17:05||2011-01-13 05:05||CONFIDENTIAL||Embassy Reykjavik|
VZCZCXYZ0007 RR RUEHWEB DE RUEHRK #0045/01 0581722 ZNY CCCCC ZZH R 271722Z FEB 09 FM AMEMBASSY REYKJAVIK TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 4000 INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC RHMFISS/HQ USEUCOM VAIHINGEN GE 0083 RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC RUEKDIA/DIA WASHDC
C O N F I D E N T I A L REYKJAVIK 000045 SIPDIS DEPT FOR EUR/NB, EUR/RPM, DRL/MLGA OSLO FOR DATT OSD FOR OSD-P (FENTON) EUCOM FOR J-5 E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/26/2019 TAGS: PREL PGOV MARR PHUM NATO ECON AF IC SUBJECT: ICELAND: FM WARNS OF POSSIBLE DEFENSE BUDGET CUTS REFS: A) 08 OSLO 594 B) STATE 14097 C) REYKJAVIK 36 D) STATE 14201 Classified By: Amb. Carol van Voorst for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d). ¶1. (C) Summary: Icelandic Foreign Minister Skarphedinsson told Ambassador on 18 February that "nothing can be ruled out" on the question of further cuts to Iceland's defense budget, and floated a trial balloon on further reductions to Iceland's contingent in Afghanistan. In public comments the next day, he went even further, suggesting that the Icelandic Defense Agency might be abolished entirely. With the Ambassador, Skarphedinsson was positive on the possibility of greater Nordic defense cooperation as proposed in the Stoltenberg report, but was careful to note that this would only be a complement to NATO, not a replacement. On Iceland's economic recovery, the FM vented that the Swedish Government continues to be "nit-picky" about the prerequisites for its promised bilateral loan. He welcomed news of USG reengagement in the Durban review process. End summary. ¶2. (U) Ambassador paid a congratulatory call on new Icelandic Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson on February 18. (Note: Skarphedinsson has also retained his previous portfolio as Minister of Industry, Energy, and Tourism.) The visibly tired but impish Skarphedinsson opened with a readout on the Nordic Foreign Ministers' meeting in Oslo on 13 February, at which former Norwegian Foreign and Defense Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg presented his report on opportunities for Nordic cooperation in defense and security. Skarphedinsson, who had chaired the meeting, joked that his biggest concern had been addressing the council in "Scandinavian" rather than English or Icelandic. ¶3. (C) Ambassador asked the FM for his view on local press discussion on the event, noting her concern that the coverage seemed to present Nordic defense cooperation as a possible replacement for NATO in the High North. Skarphedinsson said he had been very careful to note in his comments at the meeting and with the press that Nordic cooperaton would only be a complement to NATO, not a replacement. He opined that the Finns "want into NATO very badly" and as such are eager to participate in the NATO air policing mission here, while Swedish FM Bildt was much cooler to the idea. Skarphedinsson added that talk of the Nordics taking over defense for Iceland was in his view a rehashing of Cold War-era arguments. The left -- including some in Skarphedinsson's own party -- has seized on the Stoltenberg report as a chance to put forth the same old idea, but the FM said he did not believe anything will come of it. BUDGET CUTS A POSSIBILITY ------------------------- ¶4. (SBU) Turning to Icelandic government funding for defense, Ambassador pressed the FM on rumors that further defense cuts -- beyond the 20 percent slashed from the Icelandic Defense Agency (IDA) budget for 2009 -- are in the works. Skarphedinsson said he was taking a careful look at all options, including possibly combining some elements of the IDA mission with the Icelandic Coast Guard. "It's all on the table," said the FM, noting that these are very hard budget times for the Icelandic Government. Asked for her view, Ambassador described the security structure constricted after the 2006 U.S. withdrawal from Keflavik as a flexible, relatively cheap instrument that has served Iceland and its allies well. She urged the FM to support defense funding and pressed the FM hard to counter the oft-heard notion that funding for defense is not money spent in Iceland. Every krona the IDA gets for air policing purchases goods or services from Icelandic vendors, and deployed forces purchase fuel and spend money at tourism venues during their off-duty hours. The FM asked whether it made any difference whether the IDA or another agency performed these functions, to which Ambassador replied that Iceland and the IDA have developed an excellent reputation with NATO militaries that have deployed here. It is important to maintain those relationships and the rhythm of exercises and deployments in order to keep standards of proficiency and facilities maintenance high, she added. Skarphedinsson thanked Ambassador for her views but remained noncommittal, reiterating that the ministry is under tremendous budgetary pressure. He added that Iceland is not the only NATO Ally with such problems; the Spanish Air Force has cancelled its air policing rotation here later this year due to funding shortages. ¶5. (U) Note: The following day, the FM went even further during open debate in the Althingi, suggesting that the IDA might be abolished entirely and its mission parceled out to various other agencies such as the Icelandic Coast Guard, Civil Aviation Authority, and National Police. The Althingi's Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, who is from the minority government's other, openly pacifist party, immediately voiced his agreement, leading to press speculation that the IDA's days are indeed numbered. End note. DOING EVEN LESS IN AFGHANISTAN? ------------------------------- ¶6. (C) The penny-pinching theme continued in response to Ambassador's notification of the USG's Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review (Ref B). Skarphedinsson said that he and his political advisor are carefully reviewing cost-saving possibilities, including a drawdown of Iceland's personnel deployed with ISAF. (Note: Iceland currently has eight personnel at Kabul International Airport, ISAF HQ, and PRT Meymaneh.) This has not been broached outside the FM's Office as Skarphedinsson knows the relevant offices will fight for every position, but as Minister he feels a responsibility to look at every way of saving money. Ambassador pressed vigorously, noting that during his January visit to Iceland, SACEUR GEN Craddock personally vouched for the importance of every one of Iceland's billets in Afghanistan. SACEUR traveled with then-FM Gisladottir to Kabul during her visit last spring, and in so doing became quite familiar with the Icelandic contingent's work, Ambassador added. The work the Icelanders are doing is known and appreciated, and she urged the FM to maintain the current numbers. ECONOMIC RECOVERY, WHALING -------------------------- ¶7. (C) Touching briefly on Iceland's economic recovery, FM Skarphedinsson said that although tough times are ahead, Iceland will "come out better than many people expect." Fishing, clean energy, and tourism will provide a strong basis for the economy's recovery. Less happily, the FM noted, some of the bilateral loans included in the IMF bailout package have been difficult to finalize. Most notably, the Swedes have been very "nit-picky" on the details of Iceland's recovery plan. Skarphedinsson dismissed these concerns as reflective of Sweden's traditional view of itself as the "big brother" who knows better in the bilateral relationship. In contrast, Norway has historically been much more supportive of Iceland. Picking up on the tourism theme, Ambassador noted her concerns about Iceland's intent to resume and expand its commercial whaling quota; the FM said he agreed but was not in a position to change the decision himself (ref C). In closing, Skarphedinsson welcomed notification of U.S. reengagement in the Durban review process (ref D) and applauded the tone that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have brought to U.S. foreign policy. COMMENT ------- ¶8. (C) The new FM is clearly feeling pressure from his colleagues in the government to demonstrate fiscal discipline, particularly as the minority coalition tries to make good on its pledge to directly ease the burden on Icelandic households. Skarphedinsson has no built-in loyalty to the IDA, and though sold on the importance of NATO, he has at times been a reluctant advocate of the idea that Iceland should fund its own defense. The lure of being able to cut nearly 10 percent from the MFA's budget may simply be too much for the mercurial Skarphedinsson to resist. With no other political backers in the current government and just over two months until elections, the IDA may indeed be fighting for its life. Post will continue to press for a sober accounting of the operational costs of such budget slashing before any moves are made, and is quietly soliciting the interventions of other NATO embassies here as reinforcements. van Voorst