Iranian Gaze: A Postscript To Raisi’s Visit To Sri Lanka – OpEd


The Iranian president’s visit to Sri Lanka last week was not a mere visit by another head of state as the event coincided with the ongoing geopolitical commotion in which Iran stands within the epicentre. Thus, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to inaugurate the Iranian-funded Uma Oya project evoked political messages beyond diplomacy. 

Historically Iran and Sri Lanka have maintained cultural ties that dates back to antiquity. Reports narrating the trade network of the Indian Ocean written by Greek navigator Cosmos mentioned that Persian merchants often visited the ports in Sri Lanka during the kingdom of Anuradhapura. A trilingual inscription carved by Chinese Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century contained Persian as one of the languages, which indicated the gravity of Persian influence upon the island. Since the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a theocratic state, Sri Lanka continued a rapport with Tehran in many layers. 

During President Premadasa’s era in the late 80s, Iranian influence began to loom in certain aspects of his foreign policy, which became evident when President Premadasa expelled the Israeli diplomats from Colombo and it is believed that his crafty foreign minister HL Hameed shadowed the decision as he who had closer links with Iranians. 

Against the backdrop of such a profound level of relations between the two countries, the recent visit of Iran’s President Raisi denotes an important message. From a strategic perspective, Iran has been striving to expand its naval capabilities towards the southern hemisphere since 2010 and Sri Lanka’s imperative as a strategic hub in the Indian Ocean has become a palpable choice for Tehran. It was in 2013 that Iran sent its first flotilla consisting of two warships and one submarine to Colombo harbour as a port visit and this occurred even before the Chinese sent its submarine to Colombo harbour in 2014. Since 2013 Iran has engaged closely with Sri Lankans by several port visits indicating Iran’s tilt towards the Indian Ocean Region. 

Amidst the escalation with Israel, the visit made by the Iranian leader is a clearer sign to the West that the states in the Global South such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan stand along with Tehran against the West. Raisi’s visit was followed by a speech delivered at the largest mosque in Colombo where he addressed the local Muslim leaders, students and imams. The political symbolism emanated from this gathering was akin to another anti-western rhetoric accustomed by Iran to project globally, especially in the Global South. In the context of Sri Lanka, the public opinion towards the Middle Eastern issue is a twisted one. The Islamophobic feelings erupted in the aftermath of the Easter attacks and ultra-nationalist Sinhalese groups’ admiration towards Israel continued to counter anti-Zionist protests in the island. Given this anomalous situation that prevailed on the island, the Iranian President’s address before the Muslim leaders in Colombo projects a picture that portrays Sri Lanka as a state that stands against Israel, but which is not the true picture of the story. Also, it should be borne in mind that Sunni Muslims are the dominant sect of the Sri Lankan Muslim society and traditionally the Muslims in Sri Lanka have looked for Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for mentoring. However, the pro-Iranian syndrome developing in Sri Lanka creates a perplexing situation, which would eventually challenge the Saudi dominant influence in the Muslim society. For instance, the Iranian-backed Dowdi Bohra centre in Colombo has gained rapid popularity among the local Muslims. 

All these factors appear to be pivotal in signifying the message conveyed by the Iranian leader to the Muslim community as it marks Tehran’s footprint in Colombo. On the face of it, Iran fulfilled one important strategic goal by winning the Muslim community in the island, which might elevate the status quo of Iran in future to a level of an influencer as to how Saudi Arabia played its role through Wahhabism. 

Besides his persona attracted by the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, the Iranian President has forged the economic cooperation between the two countries. 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. 

The slogan “tea for oil” resembles how Sri Lanka in the 50s sought rice from China by exporting rubber and the same mechanism seems to have been adopted in this compelling deal with Iran. The growing economic partnership between Iran and Sri Lanka can be a concern to the US and the visit of the Iranian President in a stern situation that Iran is facing at the moment is certainly adding one more brick to the West’s paranoia. On the other hand, Iran is well aware of the status of Sri Lanka’s economy, which is in the doldrums. Also, Tehern knows the fragility of Sri Lanka in handling its external actors as it is conspicuous that Chinese and Indian influences have dwindled the internal political dynamics significantly. Both Sri Lanka and Iran are partners in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, in which both countries carry a heavyweight in the overarching success of BRI. The global order that emerged after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is tantamount to a new axis consisting of Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. In his recent commentary to Project Syndicate Prince Michael of Liechtenstein predicts Iranians yearn for the Indian Ocean along with China. Before visiting Sri Lanka, Raisi visited Pakistan as another crucial destination of his South Asian tour and it is a salient factor that both Pakistan and China are equally important to the BRI as the Chinese have invested millions of dollars in both the states. In this context, the Iranian President’s visit to both states is emblematic of a geo-strategic move. 

All in all, Raisi’s visit to Sri Lanka appears as a part of the Iranian geostrategic campaign amidst the tense situation in the Middle East. It is indeed a strategic gesture of Iran to extend its sphere of influence in two countries engulfed by economic crisis. Moreover, West’s frequent criticism of Sri Lanka over many issues has bolstered Tehran to depict itself as a friend in need of the island nation. Realistically the question that policymakers in Colombo should be concerned about is the repercussions that Sri Lanka is likely to face by its hobnobbing with Iran. 

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe is a post doctorial researcher attached to Institute of Law, Politics and Development in Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa. He held visiting fellowships at Sciences PO, Wisconsin Madison and HSE, Moscow. His co-edited book “Thirty Years Looking Back: The Rule of Law, Human Rights and State Building in the Post-Soviet Space was published in 2022 September.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *