Norway hesitates over Iran response

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The Norwegian government is still mulling over a request from the US for a military “contribution” towards boosting security in the waters off Iran. It won’t be easy for Norway to say “no,” but skepticism is running high and resistance is likely in Parliament.

Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen (center) has confirmed that the tensions between the US and Iran were discussed at the recent NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels. At left, the Norwegian secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, and Norway’s ambassador to NATO, Øystein Bø (right). PHOTO: Forsvarsdepartementet

Norway’s foreign and defense ministers recently confirmed the initial request from the US, where the Trump Administration is caught in a major conflict with the Iranian government. Recent attacks on oil tankers, including two controlled by Norwegian shipping interests, have heightened tensions in the area and involved Norway more directly.

Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen confirmed in a carefully worded statement, which also has been recited by Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, that the Norwegian government had “received a request from the US about a contribution to a means of strengthening security for shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.” Both went on to state that the Norwegian government is “positive to the US’ initiative,” but quickly added that there’s a “need for more information before we make an evaluation of any Norwegian contribution.”

Bakke-Jensen noted that there initially was no “concrete” information about what such a “mechanism for strengthening security for shipping” through Hormuz would entail. His statement, issued shortly after the NATO ministerial summit in Brussels two week ago, added that it was “therefore too early to say anything” about a Norwegian contribution, “but we will discuss this more closely with the US and other allies when there’s more clarity around the framework for a possible cooperation.”

US wants military escort coalition
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) cited news bureau Reuters in reporting this week that the US is now proposing formation of a military coalition that would escort tankers through Hormuz. It still wasn’t clear whether any of the hard-pressed Norwegian Navy’s vessels will be sent to the highly strategic area around the Persian Gulf. The loss of one of Norway’s five frigates after a collision with a Norwegian tanker last fall has strained Norway’s naval defense capacity. Norway has also just committed one of its remaining four frigates, a submarine and fighter jets to the new NATO Readiness Initiative (NRI) that also was proposed by the US and aimed to boost NATO’s preparedness for any attack on a member nation.

Tensions, meanwhile, have continued to rise after the US blamed Iran for the recent attacks on commercial tankers and Iran responded by shooting down an American drone. The US wants to secure the important straits through which nearly a third of the world’s oil is transported.

With the Trump Administration known for going its own way and being critical towards multilateral cooperation, Bakke-Jensen noted that it was “positive” that the US was” taking the initiative” for a new international cooperation. He also noted that since Norway is a major maritime nation known for its large shipping industry, “we depend on free and secure navigation. We’re worried about the situation in the Gulf, and the consequences we have seen for shipping. It has rammed us directly.”

Foreign Minister Søreide has also said several times in recent weeks that she is “extremely worried” about the rising tensions between the US and Iran and the military escalation in the Gulf that’s already taking place after the US itself has sent naval vessels to the area.

Took part in earlier coalitions
Norway has contributed on earlier occasions to international coalitions aimed at securing maritime operations in international waters. In 2009, for example, Norway sent one of its then-new frigates to take part in anti-piracy efforts off Somalia. Now her US counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has said he hopes at least 20 countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will take part in a new coalition at Hormuz.

NATO is also concerned about the conflict between Iran and Trump, who quickly and controversially pulled the US out of the international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. Norway, along with its major European allies and Russia, had supported the agreement and contributed to it, still does, and was not happy when the Trump Administration reversed former US President Barack Obama’s support for the Iran Nuclear Deal and slapped new economic sanctions on Iran.

The Norwegian defense department reported that Iran was not an “official theme” at the recent ministerial meeting, but stated that it was “natural” that the “tense situation” in the Gulf was discussed. NATO has urged restraint among all involved, and wants NATO members to “avoid any further escalation” even as the US wants NATO allies to contribute to security.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund