By Lydia Walker
In September, Sri Lanka announced its plan to build its first nuclear power plant within the next 20 years. The Sri Lankan Secretary of the Ministry of Power and Energy said that they would get safety approval from the International Atomic Energy Authority. He did not mention what role Iran – a staunch, historic ally and the island nation’s main energy supplier – would play in Sri Lanka’s nuclear ambitions. A 2007 US Department of State cable leaked by WikiLeaks disclosed that the US had warned Sri Lanka to be cautious about its tight economic relationship with Iran and to stop its arms purchases from that nation. Are Sri Lankan nuclear energy ambitions a sign of it seeking a measure of independence from Iranian oil, or is it an expression of increased solidarity with an incipient nuclear Iran? In 2007, the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka urged Sri Lanka “to be very scrupulous” in entering into any new trade or investment deals with Iran. Might Sri Lankan-Iranian relations undergo a change if Iran goes nuclear?
Sri Lanka and Iran have an historic economic partnership. Iran sells crude oil cheaply to Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka buys its arms and armaments from Iran. Iran funds many Sri Lankan energy development projects, from hydroelectric power to oil refineries. Iran’s investments in Sri Lanka were tallied in 2008 at approximately US$450 million. Iran is also the largest lender and aid donor to Sri Lanka. It provided loans to Sri Lanka for the purchase of military equipment during the Sri Lankan Civil War and also trained Sri Lankan military personnel. Sri Lanka was the first Asian country which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited when he assumed office.
Iranian support has been quite important to Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Minister of Housing, Construction and Public Utilities, Wimal Weerawansa, invoked a history of Iranian support in response to the United Nations’ 2010 decision to create a panel to examine possible human rights violations in the Sri Lankan government’s counterinsurgency operations: “Iran has never let us down, even when many other countries in the world refused to back us. The county as a whole is very grateful for this brotherly treatment.” At a June 2010 exchange, an Iranian minister responded to these kind words by agreeing that Iran also considers Sri Lanka a “brother” and that it would continue to support Sri Lanka in the future. The economic and political ties between Sri Lanka and Iran are both long-standing and current; they are also linked to Sri Lankan infrastructure and energy.
The prospect of an incipient nuclear Iran may well complicate the relationship between Iran and Sri Lanka. However, the recent past has been full of gestures of mutual support: In 2007, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa publicly supported Iran’s right to nuclear energy-production and use. In April 2008, Rajapaksa and Ahmadinejad issued a joint statement which called upon all nations with nuclear weapons to disarm. In August 2008, Iranian foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, announced that Iran was willing to share its uranium enrichment technology with Sri Lanka in order to facilitate a peaceful nuclear energy program for the nation.
The partnership is more complex then a senior-junior partnership based on mutual interests. Some Sri Lankans view the Iran-Sri Lanka relationship as a byway for Sri Lanka to extract whatever it can get from Iran. Following the announcement of Iranian support for Sri Lankan nuclear power, there were rumours that the Sri Lankan government had ‘timed’ a Colombo power outage to coincide with the Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit in order to show just how much the country needs more electrical power. Also, not all Sri Lankans are in favour of a future with nuclear energy – Hemantha Withanage from the Sri Lankan Centre for Environmental Justice wondered “how a country which struggles to manage ordinary household refuse thinks that it will be able to safely dispose of nuclear waste.”
Iranian aid to Sri Lanka also needs to be placed in context. Sri Lanka also receives large sums from (among others) Denmark, India, the Word Bank, and Japan. These countries and institutions are either strongly against proliferation themselves and/or would have little inclination to stand with Iran against possible, future global censure. While the percentage of Iranian aid is most substantial, if Iran’s incipient nuclear weapons program reaches the point where that nation becomes an international pariah, it is doubtful that Sri Lanka would stand with Iran against concerted pressure from the international community.
While historic and mutually beneficial, the Iran-Sri Lanka relationship is one of convenience, not the guiding force behind either country’s foreign policy. In addition, the advent of a Sri Lankan nuclear power plant is not viewed as an unalloyed good even within the country itself. Statements concerning its future appearance may have more to do with politicized modernization than actual energy policy.
Research Intern, IPCS
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