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Friends and Int’l Relations

Friends and Int’l Relations

19 Apr 2024

The planned visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Colombo has stirred up a flurry of diplomatic protests, mostly through unofficial channels, with government sources stating that the United States and others are unhappy about the official visit. 

According to reports the two day visit, which has been planned for 24 April, is yet to be confirmed. Last year, President Ranil Wickremesinghe invited Iran's President to visit Colombo, which the Iranian President had accepted. It must be noted that the invitation Sri Lanka extended to the Iranian leader was done so well before the recent escalation between Israel and Iran, where Iran claimed it retaliated against Israel for bombing one of their diplomatic compounds.

On 1 April the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria was attacked in a suspected Israeli missile attack. Several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military advisers (an Iranian paramilitary force, which the US designated as a foreign terrorist organisation - FTO in 2019) were present at the consulate when the attack took place, and seven were killed. Both the United States and Iran have a tarnished history of violating international law when it comes to the sanctity of diplomatic premises. While the West and Israel’s allies, the United State cry foul over the recent Iranian direct attack on Israel, from Iranian territory, and seek to sanction Teheran for doing the unspeakable–‘attacking Israel’, they also attempt to undermined Iranian foreign relations to isolate the Middle Eastern power, which does not conform to how the West wants it to behave.

Nevertheless, none of that conflict in the Middle East, between Israel and Hamas, and Iran by proxy, should impact Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to have bilateral relations with any country. Sri Lanka and Iran, despite some areas of disagreement, have had a long standing bilateral relationship over many decades. Iranian support, especially with a steady supply of munitions, helped the Sri Lankan Government to maintain the fast pace operational momentum during the 2007–2009 war against the LTTE. In terms of supporting Sri Lanka in the international sphere, Iran has been a steadfast supporter of Sri Lanka in many forums and at the United Nations. It must also be noted, that when it was in Sri Lanka’s interest to up-hold international law, freedom of navigation and secure vital trade routes, Colombo did so, by working with an international collective–Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), and dispatched a warship to patrol the Red Sea region, where an Iranian proxy, the Houthi’s were using, weapons likely supplied by Iran to attack commercial shipping.  

The official visit by the Iranian leader is to inaugurate the Tehran-assisted Uma Oya multipurpose development project with 120 MW hydro-power generation capacity, which is considered to have cost in excess of $ 530 million, which Sri Lanka and Iran commenced in 2007. The Uma Oya project which includes two dams and also has a 25 kilometre long water transmission tunnel, it is believed to be one of the largest and most complex, and technically challenging multipurpose projects in Sri Lankan history. The project also includes two major hydroelectric power plants each with a capacity of 60 MW. The purpose of the project is to improve irrigation of 5000 acres of agricultural land, transferring 145 million cubic metres of water and generating 290 GW/h of power per year. One of the important features of the Uma Oya project is the scattered and diverse components of the project. It is also one of the largest projects implemented by Iranian contractors abroad. While there has been some criticism of the project, today the project is largely seen as a wide-ranging benefit for Sri Lanka.

The project is also one of the few foreign assisted projects in Sri Lanka which have no strategic ‘strings’ attached to it. It is also not like the many unsolicited projects which Sri Lanka seems to attract, where the investing country–has a strategic play involved. At best, what Iran gets out of this project is international recognition, that their contractors are now capable of taking on projects of this magnitude. Of course, for Iran it is also a matter of national pride and also being some soft–power capacity in Sri Lanka.

As such, Sri Lanka should not buckle under international pressure to halt the visit. If the Iranians decide to reschedule it due to the ongoing situation, or security concerns, then that is a matter for Teheran to decide. Sri Lanka, as an aspirant trade hub, and a nation with a long-standing foreign policy stance of being friends of all, should not shy away from long-standing links and friendships, due to the views of others. 

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