Boost for Lanka-Iran ties | Daily News

Boost for Lanka-Iran ties

Iran and Sri Lanka have enjoyed strong bilateral ties for nearly six decades, but the links go back centuries into the past. Persian traders were known to visit Sri Lanka and some of them even settled down here, charmed by the beauty of our resplendent isle. In more modern times, the two countries have strengthened mutual cooperation and trade.

In this context, President Maithripala Sirisena’s current visit to Iran assumes great significance. Many, if not all, Sri Lankan leaders have visited Tehran, reaffirming the bonds between the two friendly countries. The two are also among the first members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Iran has always supported Sri Lanka at international forums. After the conflict, when there was a lot of pressure on Sri Lanka on Human Rights issues, Iran was supportive of Sri Lanka throughout.

Iran has always been a major trading partner, buying the bulk of Ceylon Tea, which is the most popular brew in the country. Iranians prefer to drink only Ceylon Tea and generally do not consume teas produced in other countries. Sri Lanka has been a traditional buyer of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products. Iran was the sole supplier for the country’s only refinery for several decades. Iran is also one of the biggest aid donors to Sri Lanka and President Sirisena has urged more Iranian companies to invest in Sri Lanka in diverse fields.

Trade between the two nations was affected by the sanctions imposed against Iran by sections of the International Community over the nuclear issue. Although some sanctions were lifted following the signing of a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six other major powers in 2015, the recent withdrawal of the US from the deal (the other major signatories still remain committed to it) may have an impact on Iran’s trade activities with other countries. Emerging economies such as Sri Lanka should seek ways and means to ensure that trade can be carried out at least to some extent in such an eventuality.

The bilateral talks between President Hassan Rouhani and President Sirisena in Tehran are even more important in the present situation. They had discussed the expansion of economic and trade ties between the two sides. President Rouhani noted that the talks with President Sirisena focused on the sale of Iranian crude oil, petrochemicals, building blocks, as well as technical and engineering services.

The five Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) signed in the presence of the two countries’ presidents in Tehran will increase bilateral cooperation in different fields. The MoUs cover the fight against drug trafficking, cooperation in health, medical science, medicine and medical equipment, cooperation on standardization, training and laboratory services, collaboration in the film industry between the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance of Iran and the National Film Corporation of Sri Lanka and cooperation in cultural, scientific and educational fields. Two of the MoUs stand out in particular - it is heartening to see countries such as Iran and Sri Lanka join hands to fight the scourge of illegal narcotics that are routed through the region and there are many lessons we can draw from Iran’s vibrant film industry. In fact, the 2017 Oscar for Best Foreign Language movie went to Iran, for Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman.

The two leaders have also focused another vital matter – the lack of a direct scheduled air link between Colombo and Tehran (Iran’s Mahan Air offers only charter flights). Although nine millions Iranians travel abroad every year, Sri Lanka gets only a few thousand of them. If a direct air link can be established along with a major promotional campaign on Sri Lanka, more Iranian tourists are likely to visit. Both Iran Air and SriLankan Airlines must explore the possibility of starting such a direct flight, while also leaving the door open for privately owned Iranian low cost carriers to fly to Colombo. It will also be a boost for two-way business travel and air freight. Tehran will also be a gateway for Lankan travellers heading to other destinations in the region and Iranian flying to Colombo will have easy access to India and other regional destinations as well.

Sri Lanka should also seek Iranian expertise for oil exploration. This is very much a long term process, but striking oil will help reduce the country’s massive fuel import bill. On a more immediate note, updating the existing refinery with Iranian help would help Sri Lanka to import more crude oil and reduce imports of “finished” products such as petrol and diesel, which are generally more expensive to purchase in the world market. Iran can also offer its expertise in power generation, renewable energy and the motor car industry, being the 18th largest vehicle manufacturer in the world. There will be plenty of demand in Sri Lanka for an attractively priced family car manufactured by Iran, which already exports vehicles to markets around the globe. We hope President Sirisena’s visit will lay a firm foundation for all these measures and more, signifying a new chapter in the ties between the two countries. 


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