STOCKHOLM, Sweden, March 19 (UPI) -- Sweden says it is seeking to strengthen defense ties with Iceland by participating in a joint Nordic operation to provide surveillance for its airspace.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in Stockholm his scheduled visit to Iceland this week was in part meant to show strong backing for a controversial effort to join Finland and Norway in NATO-led air surveillance patrols for Iceland in 2014.
After 2006, when the United States pulled out of Iceland, NATO has been responsible for surveillance of Icelandic airspace. In the first quarter of 2014, Norway will have primary responsibility for air surveillance, with non-NATO members Swedish and Finnish also participating under Norwegian leadership.
The proposition proved highly unpopular with Finnish opposition parties, which objected to closer alignment with NATO and straining relations with Russia.
Sweden, however, remained staunchly in favor of the idea and last month Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja gave his support to his country's participation in the Icelandic air patrols.
Bildt said his visit was to include a stop at Iceland's Keflavik Airport, which will serve as the control center for the airspace surveillance operation.
"Iceland and Sweden share a long history and our cultures are related," he said. "We are closely intertwined both economically and politically. This is demonstrated not least by the proposed help to Iceland's airspace surveillance.
"The visit provides an opportunity to study in detail this good example of Nordic cooperation on the ground."
In October, Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir said she appreciated the Nordic efforts on foreign and defense matters regarding her country, saying, "I am ... very pleased that the process has progressed so far in the matter of joint air surveillance over Iceland -- I also think that it is a natural continuation of Nordic cooperation."
Norwegian Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strom-Erichsen also praised the Icelandic patrols as important step forward in reaching a common security policy for the Nordic nations after meeting last month with Swedish counterpart Karin Enstrom.
"Nordic cooperation is constantly evolving and it is gratifying to see that all the Nordic countries -- in spite of differing alliances and international profile -- have a very similar sense of how we will work together," she said.
The Icelandic air space agreement had to overcome significant opposition in Finland, where opponents blasted it as a bid by NATO to make Helsinki help pay for Iceland's defense without receiving any military benefits in return, Helsingin Sanomat reported.
Jussi Niinisto, chairman of the Finnish Parliament's defense committee, said the move represented a "big leap" for a country that isn't aligned with NATO and warned that if Finland took part, Russia would want to test the quality of the surveillance.
But last month Tuomioja, the Finnish foreign minister, announced Finland would go ahead with the project, comparing it to existing cooperation with Norway and Sweden in patrolling the arctic, Finnish broadcaster YLE reported.
His comments came after Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in November said Finland's participation in the Iceland patrols didn't necessarily signal a change in the country's security policy.