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Antony Blinken In Iceland To Protect U.S. Interest In The Arctic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been working the phones to try to calm the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So far, he is not ready to jump on a plane to the region for face to face diplomacy. But he is on the road, protecting America's interest in the Arctic. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with him.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Several thousand miles away from the spiraling conflict in the Middle East, America's top diplomat says he and his team are still trying to achieve peace there.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: It's important to note that we are engaged in quiet but very intensive diplomacy in an effort to de-escalate, end the violence and then hopefully move on to build something more positive in its wake.

KELEMEN: But in the absence of progress there, Blinken has kept up his original plans - visiting a geothermal plant today just outside of Iceland's capital.

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BLINKEN: We're going to try to fight. But also...

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken is in Reykjavik for an Arctic Council meeting keeping focused on climate change and getting ready for his first face to face meeting as secretary with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Blinken says he wants to build a stable and predictable relationship with Russia, and the Arctic Council is one of those rare areas where that's possible.

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BLINKEN: 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 that the Arctic remains an area of peaceful cooperation and peaceful collaboration.

KELEMEN: Foreign Minister Lavrov is striking a tougher tone, dismissing what he calls Western grievances about Russia's military activities in the Arctic.

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SERGEY LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: This is our territory, our land, Lavrov told reporters. We're in charge of keeping the Arctic coast safe, and everything Russia is doing there is absolutely legal. Secretary Blinken and his hosts, both here in Iceland and yesterday in Denmark, are keeping a watchful eye on Russia, which soon takes over the rotating chairmanship of the council. Iceland's foreign minister says he's glad to see that America is back and engaged in this region. Denmark's foreign minister Jeppe Kofod echoed that yesterday.

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JEPPE KOFOD: And let me tell you, Secretary Blinken, America has been missed. Denmark appreciate the Biden administration's return to the negotiating table in the world and the decision-making foras.

KELEMEN: All eyes, though, are on the U.S. engagement in the Middle East these days. The Biden administration has so far prevented the U.N. Security Council from weighing in on the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Blinken said he wants to make sure that any statement actually advances the goal of ending the violence.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Reykjavik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.