MODERATOR: Secretary of State of the United States and the minister for foreign affairs of Iceland.
FOREIGN MINISTER THORDARSON: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for being here. It has been my great pleasure to receive U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken here in Iceland. Tony, we see your visit here as a strong testament of a deep and longstanding friendship between our countries, founded on shared values, ideas, and interests. Not only have you come here for the Arctic Council Ministerial, a meeting which Iceland, as the outgoing chair, attach great importance to, but you have also taken time from your busy schedule for an extensive bilateral visit. We appreciate this very much, especially this year, when we mark 80 years of U.S.-Iceland diplomatic relations and the 70 anniversary of our bilateral defense agreement.
Today’s meeting was an opportunity to strengthen our relationship even further, with a very productive discussion on many issues of mutual concern and interest. Let me provide you with some key takeaways. We talked about our longstanding cooperation on security and defense, where I emphasized the central role of our bilateral defense agreement in Iceland national defense strategy and our NATO cooperation. We agreed that we need to continue to nurture this important aspect of our relations, with the Keflavik air base playing a critical and strategic role in the North Atlantic.
We also talked about the extensive and growing trade relations between our two countries, and we agreed on finding ways to extend these even further. The U.S. is Iceland’s single largest trading partner. This is therefore a priority for us. Tony, I am glad we agree to deepen and broaden our trade relations even further and ensure concrete results.
We also discussed global issues of common concern and mutual interest. In the area of climate change, I applauded the Biden administration’s swift return to the Paris Agreement. This was a critical step which I believe will have a long-lasting positive impact on the implementation of the agreement. In this regard, I stressed Iceland’s commitment to the Paris Agreement as demonstrated by enhanced ambitions when it comes to emission cuts, carbon removal, and international climate finance. We agreed that there are a range of opportunities when it comes to enhanced collaboration between Iceland and the U.S. in these areas and decided to continue discussions on how to take our cooperation to the next level.
Lastly, Tony and I had a very good conversation about our shared values and ideas, in particular when it comes to human rights, democracy, and gender equality, all of which are at the heart of Iceland’s foreign policy. In this regard, I warmly welcome the U.S. return to active engagement with the UN Human Rights Council, and also took the opportunity to highlight Iceland’s positive experience from sitting in the council in 2018, 2019, when I think we showed that it can be a body of some consequences. Overall, the U.S. and Iceland have a lot of convergence of views and position when it comes to human rights, and we decided to continue our discussion on how we can put this convergence to work.
Lastly, we had the opportunity to discuss the very grave situation in Israel and Palestine and the need to break up the spiral of violence and work towards a sustainable political solution.
So, as you can hear, this was a very productive meeting with a range of important issues discussed. Now, Tony, thank you again for coming to Iceland and thank you for your good discussion today. And thank you for your demonstrated commitment to the friendship between our two countries. Over to you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: My friend, thank you so very much for your good words and warm welcome, especially for the very productive meeting that we had. And I’ll add a few comments and thoughts to what the foreign minister said, but it really is a pleasure to be in Reykjavik and to have the chance to convey in person my country’s commitment to our partnership with Iceland.
Before talking about that, I do want to start where the foreign minister left off, and that is to just say a few words by way of brief update on our ongoing diplomatic efforts with Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. As I think you know, President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday and expressed our support for a ceasefire. He reiterated that Israel, like every country, has the right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks and emphasized that Israel has to make every effort to protect innocent civilians. I likewise underscored the urgent need to bring an end to the violence in my own conversations yesterday with partners in Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Tunisia, the European Union, and again this morning with my colleagues in Morocco and Bahrain. And I’ll do the same with other counterparts on the margins of the Arctic Council tonight and tomorrow.
I also had the opportunity to speak to our envoy in the region, Hady Amr, to get the latest update from him on his conversations with the parties, including most recently President Abbas. Our goal remains to bring the current cycle of violence to an end as quickly as possible and then bring the parties back to the work of building lasting stability, which the Palestinian and Israeli people – and people everywhere – deserve.
Having said that, let me turn to the conversations we had today and the partnership between the United States and Iceland. And again, I just want to start by thanking all of our colleagues, starting with the foreign minister, but all of our hosts for what really was an excellent meeting. In fact, I think at one point we looked at our watches and realized we were – we’re out of time and there were still probably 15 or 20 things we could have talked about, so we have to keep talking. But it’s (inaudible) the fact that there is so much on our common agenda, and I very much look forward as well to seeing the prime minister and the president a little bit later. This really is an incredibly warm welcome and I’m grateful for it on behalf of the United States.
We share, simply put, commitment to democratic values, and I particularly want to commend Iceland for its leadership on gender equality, from equal pay to political representation; its contributions to strengthening human rights worldwide through membership in the Human Rights Council. Iceland’s voice is a powerful one, a voice of integrity, a voice that is heard and listened to around the world.
Our security is bound together as well through our founding membership in NATO and our bilateral defense agreement, which indeed marked its 70th anniversary earlier this month.
And our economies are interconnected, increasingly interconnected, not the least because so many Americans want to travel here to see for themselves the remarkable geological wonders that Iceland has to offer. And I know that many of my fellow citizens want to do so again soon. So yes, we discussed ways to increase trade and investment and also the travel restrictions related to COVID-19.
As our countries stand together in so many areas, I think increasingly we’re doing that to address the most urgent and complex challenges that are facing our people and literally facing the planet. We talked, of course, about our shared commitment to the Arctic. As Arctic allies, both Iceland and the United States want to make sure that it remains a region free of conflict and full of cooperation, where countries act responsibly, where economic development and investment take place in a sustainable and transparent manner that respects the environment and the interests and cultures of indigenous communities. I think these values are especially important now as the Arctic region is increasingly characterized by strategic competition. It must remain an area of peaceful cooperation and collaboration, and that’s no more important – no less important, excuse me, than ever before.
Iceland, of course, has been a very strong leader of the Arctic Council for the past two years despite the challenges of COVID-19. In particular, they’ve helped us make significant progress on climate and clean energy solutions and leading the Arctic Council to a place of significant import and, I think, leaving it stronger than they found it.
And relatedly, we talked about the climate crisis. Iceland is an example to the world of what’s possible with renewable energy, with hydro power, geothermal energy now making up nearly half of all of the country’s electricity production. Iceland is increasingly a source of innovative climate technologies, not just for Iceland but for the world. And I have to say as well that your bold ambitions, including achieving carbon neutrality before 2040, are encouraging others to aim high too.
We talked about stopping COVID-19 and building back better. Iceland shares our commitment to strengthen global health security so that we can do our best to prevent, to detect, and if necessary, to mitigate the next pandemic, the next health crisis. And as President Biden announced yesterday, the United States plans to send 80 million save and effective COVID vaccines around the world by the end of June with more to follow, because we need to do – and we want to do – all that we can to defeat the pandemic as fast as we can.
And we discussed transatlantic unity. We’re very grateful for the important steps Iceland has taken to support NATO, including in the High North, with Iceland’s support for NATO’s integrated air defense system. And the United States deeply values our security cooperation with Iceland, including close coordination at the Keflavik Air Base.
On these, on so many other issues, including a few we didn’t get to but will as we continue our conversations, Iceland and the United States are allies and trusted partners. We’ve got a friendship that stretches back to 1944 when we were proud to be the first country to recognize Iceland’s independence. And for a great deal longer than that, for more than a thousand years, the people of Iceland have sustained a tradition of freedom and individual liberty. We’re grateful that our friendship is strong, enduring, and growing, and we look forward to building upon it and building on our work together in the years ahead.
So thank you so much. It’s great to be here, great to be with you.
MODERATOR: And now we move on to the Q&A. I ask you all to keep your questions concise. Bring up in English, and both the Secretary and the foreign minister will reply to you in English. Both will answer the question if needed.
The first to ask is Heimir Mar Petursson from Channel Two, Iceland.
QUESTION: Yes, I hope that Secretary Blinken appreciates we don’t have access here in the Icelandic press so often to ask high officials as you here, so I have a couple question.
First, is the U.S. Government evaluating the importance of Greenland and Iceland regarding the security of U.S. and NATO, and maybe considering more permanent U.S. military presence in Iceland like Keflavik Air Base?
And secondly, isn’t it clear that no real process toward peace will be made until the Israeli Government stops illegal settlement by international law on the West Bank and lift the isolation of Gaza? And if the foreign minister of Iceland would also complete that.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. I’m happy to start. A couple of things. We plan to continue to maintain the U.S. presence on a persistent rotational basis in order to support our obligations to NATO and to Iceland. We’re working very closely with the Government of Iceland, and our military forces have received tremendous support at Keflavik, the NATO air base. And our own military is contributing to the base by, as you know, undertaking various infrastructure projects. Any changes with the current operations are closely coordinated with the ministry of foreign affairs, and the United States and all NATO allies immensely appreciate the support that we’ve been provided at the base over the years and know it will endure. So there’s real gratitude for that.
We also have, as you know, a very important NATO summit, a leaders’ summit coming up in just a few weeks. And that will be an opportunity for all of us, with the United States and Iceland working very closely together, to think about and work on NATO’s future to make sure that NATO is focused on the challenges that it will face today and tomorrow, not just yesterday, and – to make sure that it is properly resourced. But I’ve been grateful already in the meetings that we’ve had for the close work that we’re doing together and the support that NATO received. It’s also, I think, very important to recall that the purpose of our alliance is a defensive one, and we are bound together in common defense of our interests and values. That’s the purpose of this alliance.
And with regard to the second part of the question, we continue to believe strongly that the best path forward for Israel, for the Palestinians, is through two states. That is the best way to guarantee Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and the best way, of course, to guarantee that the Palestinians have the state that they’re entitled to. And in that regard, any steps by any party – any unilateral steps by any party – that make the realization of two states more difficult and more challenging than it already is are steps that we would oppose.
QUESTION: What about the illegal settlement?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, again, I think we’ve been very clear on our views on settlements and, again, any actions that either side takes that make the prospect of two states even more challenging.
FOREIGN MINISTER THORDARSON: Yes, thank you. I don’t think there’s much to add when it comes to the cooperation, when it comes to the NATO and the defensive bilateral agreement, and it’s there for a reason and we know that, and the reason that we have – we can do more is that of course it’s our duty to protect the values we share.
When it comes to Israel and Palestine, this was something that was not originally on the agenda, but we decided to discuss it for obvious reason. We – Icelandic position has and is clear. We support the two-state solution and believe the Israeli occupation is illegal, and we strongly condemns all attack on civilian populations, and, of course, the great casualties and suffering, as we all know, including children. So – but of course the most important thing is now a ceasefire and I am – we will hope of course that that would be achieved, because it’s of utter importance.
MR PRICE: Next question comes to Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you. Mr. Secretary, this administration has repeatedly said America is back, reflecting the desire to restore U.S. leadership in the world, and promised to revitalize multilateralism. And yet, in one of the first serious crisis it’s facing in the Middle East, the U.S. has singlehandedly blocked efforts in the United Nations to issue a statement on a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. How do you justify that?
And my question to Icelandic foreign minister. Iceland, with its strategic location, has seen huge interest from both U.S. and China. Your close ties with China are well known, including a free trade agreement signed in 2015 and an invitation from China to join the Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, U.S. is a little bit late to the Arctic party. In that regard, how close are you to reaching a free trade agreement with U.S.? And do you feel squeezed by the United States – between the United States and China? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Happy to start. Thank you. First, I think it’s important to note that we are engaged in quiet but very intensive diplomacy in an effort to de-escalate and end violence and then hopefully move on to build something more positive in its wake. That’s involved and continues to involve dozens and dozens of phone calls and engagements with Israelis, with Palestinians, with virtually every partner country in the region as well as the work that’s being done on the ground by our Senior Envoy for Israel and Palestine Hady Amr.
With regard to the United Nations, we’re not standing in the way of diplomacy. On the contrary, as I said, we’re exercising it virtually non-stop. The question is: Would any given action or any given statement actually advance the goal of ending the violence and moving to a better place? And that’s the judgment that we bring to bear each time we’re considering what action to take, what initiative to follow. If we thought and if we think going forward that there’s something, including at the United Nations, that would actually effectively advance the objective, we would be for it. But right now, we are very focused on this intensive diplomacy with the objective of bringing violence to an end and, as I said, trying to build something positive in its wake.
FOREIGN MINISTER THORDARSON: Well, thank you. First of all, I think it’s important to bear in mind for those who (inaudible), there’s a big difference when it comes to trade between Iceland and the U.S. and Iceland and China. And the trade between Iceland and U.S. is, of course, a success story, and U.S. is our largest trading partner by far, when China is maybe (inaudible), something that’s similar – we trade similar to China (inaudible) in Sweden.
And we attach a great importance of constructive relationship with China, and this year, we’re going to celebrate the 50 anniversary of diplomatic relations, and we have many issues of common interest which we are committed to continue. But at the same time, Iceland remains underrated when it comes to the fundamental importance of the human rights for all people regardless of where they are in the world. We are therefore joined likeminded countries like the U.S. in expressing concern when those rights are being violated. And we have done so for some of the cases for human rights abuses in Xinjiang and – to just pick one example.
At the same time, I think it’s really important that likeminded countries who share the same values make significant steps of cooperating as closely together as possible. And one thing to cooperate is through trade, because trade is much more than only the sharing money for the goods and services. It’s understanding people who start to understand each other, make friendship, and cooperate. And it is no secret it’s been my priority to stay in trade relations with the U.S. even further. And I am very pleased to have confirmation from Tony when it comes to making these calls to deepen and strengthen the trade relations between our countries. The economic dialogue which has been established is here to stay. That’s a good tool for working on that.
At the same time, we are – that’s something we are waiting for for decades. We have the Iceland bill in the house and we – it should have been finalized this year if it had not been for COVID. So – and we decided that we want to work on this with concrete results. This is really, really important, and that is something that I was very pleased to hear from Tony and we do agree on. So we are ready for the next steps and increased agreement of both of us to strengthen and deepen the economic ties between Iceland and the U.S.
MODERATOR: Thank you. The next question goes to Mr. Thorvaldur Palsson, who is a journalist for Frettabladid newspaper.
QUESTION: Thank you. Now Russia will be taking over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Iceland and yesterday, Prime Minister – I’m sorry, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the Arctic is the territory of Russia. What is the U.S. and Icelandic position towards this? And has there been any discussion of a summit meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin, and would Reykjavik be a suitable location for that? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, as you know, the – there is a proposal that the two presidents meet, President Biden and President Putin, and we expect that to happen in the weeks ahead. I think, as the President says – President Biden said, it’s an important opportunity because more generally, before speaking to the Arctic, it would be our preference to have a more stable and more predictable relationship with Russia, and indeed, there are areas where it’s in our mutual interest to cooperate. As you know, at the beginning of our administration, the very beginning of the administration, we extended the New START arms control agreement by five years. We – the President has agreed that we would continue to talk about strategic stability, and I think there are hopefully some opportunities there that would advance the security of all people. And in addition, there are other areas where it would make sense for us to look at whether we cooperate.
At the same time, we’ve been very clear that if Russia chooses to take reckless or aggressive actions that target our interests, those of our allies and partners, we’ll respond, not for the purposes of seeking conflict or escalating, but because such challenges cannot be allowed to go forward with impunity. You’ve already seen the actions that we’ve taken in response to the SolarWinds cyber intrusion, to interference in our elections, to the attempt to murder Mr. Navalny with a chemical weapon, and so on. But I think it’s important to have the opportunity to talk about these things face to face and, again, to see if there are grounds for a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia and cooperation on issues of mutual concern.
With regard to the Arctic, Russia, of course, is an Arctic Council member and taking over the chairmanship now from Iceland. There’s been cooperation on a number of important areas over the years – on education, oil spill response, search and rescue, pollution issues – and it is our hope that that kind of cooperation will continue, and the Arctic remains an area of peaceful cooperation and peaceful collaboration.
At the same time, we’ve seen Russia advance unlawful maritime claims, particularly its regulation of foreign vessels transiting the Northern Sea Route, which are inconsistent with international law. And that is something that we have and will respond to. The regulatory scheme that Russia has put forward does not give due regard as required by international law to navigation rights, freedoms of the territorial seas and exclusive economic zone. So here, for example, we’ve urged Russia to submit its regulatory scheme to the International Maritime Organization for consideration and adoption. It’s yet to do so, but we have to proceed – all of us, including Russia – based on the rules, based on the norms, based on the commitments that we’ve each made and also avoid statements that undercut those.
And as we both discussed, we have concerns about some of the increased military activities in the Arctic that increases the dangers or prospects of accidents, miscalculations, and undermines the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region. So we have to be vigilant about that. But look, I am hopeful, especially with the very strong foundation that Iceland has continued to help set for the Arctic Council, that we will continue to use this with Russia and all of our other partners in the council as the strongest possible vehicle for sustaining and even deepening peaceful cooperation in the region.
FOREIGN MINISTER THORDARSON: Well, when it comes to the Arctic, then there is – very clear that there are – the Arctic, it’s not like there is no man’s land in the way that you look at the rules and laws, various rules and laws that the Arctic’s – the Arctic is a part of. That’s very clear. And then, of course, a part of the Arctic is a part of the Arctic countries. So I think that doesn’t need to be discussed.
At the same time, it’s really important that that’s something that we do prioritize for. First of all, it should be a low-tension area that it has been (inaudible). That’s extremely important, and we will keep the extra focus when it comes to that.
And then second, it needs to be sustainable, not only when it comes to the environment, but also socially and economically. And that’s the policy of Iceland, and we haven’t – I think that we have had a good common ground when it comes to those priorities, which is extremely important, because we are going to see more activists in the Arctic in the near future, like we all know. So it’s really good to hear at our meeting with me and Tony how focused we were on these same views when it comes to the Arctic, and it’s really important that the U.S. stays engaged and (inaudible) and see it as a priority, which I welcome very much.
MR PRICE: Final question goes to John Hudson, The Washington Post.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, Foreign Minister Lavrov in his discussions and his comments yesterday said – dismissed these military accusations of militarization with the Arctic saying this is our territory, this is our land. He also made a proposal saying that the resumption of regular meetings of Arctic Council military leaders – that’s something that should start again. What’s your position on that?
And also, yesterday, you said the U.S. requested an explanation from Israel about its bombing of a high-rise building containing U.S. and foreign media offices. Have you received anything? And what’s your assessment of that?
Minister Thordarson, the new U.S. administration says America is back. Can you feel the difference?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I’m tempted to let my friend go first on that one. (Laughter.)
So I’m actually looking forward to seeing Foreign Minister Lavrov in the next day or so here. We’ll have an opportunity to talk about all of those things, both the bilateral relationship between the United States and Russia as well as the Arctic Council and our approach there. But I think the Arctic Council is very appropriately focused and should remain focused on how we advance peaceful cooperation in the region, how we sustain it as a region of peace, how we work together to focus on sustainable development, the concerns of indigenous inhabitants, research in science, on climate. And that has been and should remain the focus and agenda of the council. And I think what, again, we need to avoid is a militarization of the region. We’ve had significant cooperation in the past, and hopefully that will be sustained in the future.
With regard to the second part of the question, we did seek further information from Israel on this question. It’s my understanding that we’ve received some further information through intelligence channels, and that’s not something that I can comment on.
FOREIGN MINISTER THORDARSON: Well, the question is, “Is America – America back?” When it comes to multilateralism, there is no doubt about that, and of course we see when it comes to the Paris Agreement, when it comes to the Human Rights Council, (inaudible) another example, there is no doubt that the policy is – the change is very clear, clear. And that’s very – and we welcome that because the U.S. is the leader of the free world, and it’s very important, and the values of the multilateralism is based on values that we – of something that we fight for and we appreciate. But they shouldn’t be taken for granted.
And unfortunately, we are not seeing these values growing in a way – when you look at the world as it is now, we are in a constant fight for those values. And if the leader of the free world, the U.S., is not there, then so others will take over and step in. So we really appreciate that. And it is extremely important and I always address that when I can.
At the same time, it’s also important that the U.S. is close to her closest allies, its close allies for decades. And we have seen, in my time as the foreign minister, that the – fortunately, that we have seen the U.S. getting more active when it comes to bilateral relations between Iceland and the U.S. We welcome that, and I am really pleased that it was stressed and confirmed at our meeting with Tony that that will be the case, and we are going to see stronger relations between Iceland and the U.S. in the near future. In various ways, we mentioned the climate cooperation, trade, and many other fields, multilateral – and multilateral organization. And that is something that we feel is really important and I am pleased with.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
MODERATOR: This concludes this press meeting. Thank you all very much. We ask you kindly to sit and wait a little bit while the Secretary of State and the foreign minister leave the room. Thank you all.