Strategic significance of Iranian President’s visit to Sri Lanka

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By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, April 24: The one-day visit of the Iranian President Dr.Ebrahim Raisi to Sri Lanka on Wednesday, brief though it may be,  has great economic, political and, most importantly, strategic significance.

The primary purpose of Dr.Raisi’s visit is to sign five Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs). Dr. Raisi and the Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe will also participate in a public ceremony to mark the inauguration of the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project (UOMDP), a joint venture.

But since 2013, Iran has been subtly using its economic ties with Sri Lanka to build a strategic partnership with the island nation.

According to Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Sri Lanka and Iran could be strategic partners, with Iran wanting its navy to have a wider reach since 2011.

Iranian outreach to Sri Lanka took advantage of Sri Lanka’s frustration with the West, Rubin explains in his piece on Iran-Sri Lanka relations published in 2016.

Between 1983 and 2009 Sri Lankan forces fought a war against the Tamil Tiger separatists, a war which the West opposed. But Iran supported the Sri Lankan government’s military operations. 

Rubin points out that when the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon agreed to appoint a special panel to investigate human rights violations by Sri Lanka during its final military drive to eradicate the Tamil Tigers, Iranian Minister of Transportation Ali Nikzad lambasted the UN panel, describing it as a “paper tiger” and a “pet of the Western nations.”

Nikzad further said: “If any organization or country takes action that will harm Sri Lanka, Iran will always very strongly oppose such a move.”

The then Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called his Sri Lankan counterpart to congratulate him on successfully ending the war sand remind him that Iran had always supported Sri Lanka’s unity.

Mottakki also said: “Iran is sincerely committed to the development of Sri Lanka, whom we consider to be a true friend.”

In April 2008 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Colombo and declared that Iran and Sri Lanka both sought “justice and fair play in the world,” and pledged further cooperation

Military Ties

Rubin said in his article in the American Enterprise Institute that the first Iranian flotilla docked in Colombo in February 2013. Then, on 20 December 2013 Iran’s 28th Naval Flotilla, comprising two warships, a submarine, and a combat helicopter, arrived in Colombo.

The Iranian submarine commander Rear Admiral Siavash Jareh said that one of the goals of the deployment was “to show the Islamic Republic’s power and wave its flag in the southern hemisphere and to prepare for forthcoming operations to secure sea lanes in critical regions, especially the Strait of Malacca and Bay of Bengal.”

In 2015 Iran sent a destroyer and an auxiliary ship to Sri Lanka. Iran also offered to train Sri Lankan naval cadets in Iran. 

Adm.Jayantha Perera, the then Commander of Sri Lanka’s Navy, reportedly said that Sri Lanka’s relationship with Iran “is not just military but also political,” and said that the Iranian port visit at Colombo would strengthen the bilateral partnership.

According to Rubin, in 2005, just weeks after the tsunami struck the island, Iran supplied USD 150 million worth of weaponry to Sri Lanka.

On February 21 this year, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, held talks with the President of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo. Abdollahian stated that Iran’s economic and industrial sectors, including the Ministry of Energy, are prepared to develop cooperation with Sri Lanka.

Referring to Iran’s strategic position, the Sri Lankan President said that Sri Lanka considers Iran as a gateway to Central Asia and called for increasing economic interactions with Iran.

Growing Economic Ties

The political and strategic ties between Iran and Sri Lanka are founded on fruitful economic cooperation.

The Iranian-Lankan Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project (UOMDP) which is to be inaugurated by Dr.Raisi and the Sri Lankan President on Wednesday, is one of the largest irrigation projects in Sri Lanka and the largest Iranian-Lankan project in the island.  

UOMPD’s primary objective is to alleviate water scarcity in the south-eastern dry region by redirecting an annual average of 145 million cubic meters (MCM) of excess water from the Uma Oya basin to the Kirindi Oya basin. About 4,500 hectares of new land and 1,500 hectares of existing agricultural land in the dry Monaragala District will receive irrigation water.

Parts of Badulla, Monaragala, and Hambantota districts will also benefit from 39 million cubic meters (MCM) of water for drinking and industrial purposes, while generating and adding 290 GWh of electrical energy annually to the National Grid.

The project encompasses the construction of two reservoirs at Puhulpola and Dyraaba, and a conveyance tunnel spanning 3.98 kilometers to connect the two reservoirs.

In 2007, the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa made an epoch-making visit to Iran and signed MoUs on development projects worth more than US$ 1.9 billion. The following year Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Sri Lanka and inaugurated a US$ 750 million project to upgrade Sri Lanka’s Sapugaskanda petroleum refinery.  

Iran had agreed to provide no interest credit terms for petroleum purchases (approximately USD 700 million) and stated that it would finance the Uma Oya Project (USD 450Mn).

When Ahmadinejad became President of Iran, Sri Lanka was the first country he visited on his inaugural Asian tour. Alarmed, the US State Department expressed concern over the growing economic relationship between Colombo and Tehran.

Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister Roknoddin Javadi said that Iran was prepared to provide 40,000 to 45,000 barrels per day, enough oil to supply Sri Lanka’s main oil refinery.

The Sri Lanka and Iran epoch-making ‘tea-for-oil’ barter agreement is now making strong progress and Sri Lanka has already settled payments to the tune of over USD 20 million to Iran.

“This agreement was to settle a total of USD 250 million for purchases made by Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) for oil imported from Iran in 2012”, said Chairman Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB) Niraj de Mel in a special interview with ‘Daily News Business’.

“Since then we have made very strong progress and up to December 2023 we have settled around USD 20 million,” de Mel said.

In 2016 Iran used some of its hard currency windfall to lease Sri Lankan Airlines airplanes, effectively helping Sri Lanka’s national carrier to reduce its US$ 1 billion debt, Rubin said in his article. Institute.


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