Foreign Policy of a Sovereign Nation


Last week’s Iran visit of President Maithripala Sirisena underlined the fact that Sri Lankan foreign policy is not decided in Washington, London, New Delhi or Beijing, but in Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, the official capital of the country. Sri Lankan foreign policy has been drafted on twin pillars of the Asia-centric middle path and friendship with all countries. As the foreign policy of any country puts the country’s interests first, Sri Lanka too cannot be rigid in its policy towards the international community.

Some ill-informed foreign affairs analysts with pro-West bias tried to interpret President Sirisena’s visit to Iran as a hostile act against the United States (US). They argue that the timing of the visit was wrong because of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal just three days before the visit of the Sri Lankan President.

These so-called analysts seem to be of the view that Sri Lanka should take permission for any high level visit to countries perceived as hostile to American interests. They came up with similar theories during the Sri Lankan President’s visit to Qatar.

However, they did not say anything about President Sirisena’s tour of South Korea. If the same argument is used, the President should not have undertaken a visit to South Korea at a time when there was tension with North Korea, as China would be unhappy.

President Sirisena not only visited Qatar and South Korea, but also Iran and all these visits were highly beneficial to Sri Lanka. There is no connection between President Sirisena’s visit to Iran and the withdrawal of the US from the nuclear deal. President Sirisena was initially scheduled to visit Tehran in 2016. After fixing the dates twice in 2016 and 2017, it was postponed for the third time due to unexpected domestic issues.

Rescheduling of the visit was not due to political strategies, but purely due to the busy schedules of the leaders of Iran and Sri Lanka.

Excellent relationship

The whole world knows that Sri Lanka has maintained an excellent relationship with the United States and Europe since the inception of the new government in January 2015. Furthermore, Sri Lanka has very strong ties with India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, and a lot of other nations.

Foreign office mandarins seem to have cooked up a story that some foreign embassies are ‘concerned’ about President Sirisena’s visit to Iran last week. If that is true, the Foreign Office must have failed to brief the foreign missions in Colombo about the background of the visit and about the long-standing invitation from Iran. Such briefings are routinely done to dispel possible misunderstandings.

These officials initially hinted that Europe too was ‘upset’ about the visit. That is proof that they did not expect the European countries to continue adhering to the Iran nuclear deal.

Several high ranking officials, starting from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have expressed unhappiness about the arbitrary actions of some top officers in the Foreign Ministry. These officers have been accused of serving the interests of some foreign powers, rather than national interests. Their main area of interest is to get plum ambassador posts in Europe or North America and they try to keep those posts vacant for as long as possible to suit their objectives.

Sri Lanka and Iran are members of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Asia Cooperation Dialogue. Iran accorded a grand welcome to President Sirisena last week. Five memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were signed during the visit. The cooperation documents include an agreement on fighting narcotics and psychoactive drugs, an agreement on health, medical sciences, medicines and medical equipment, and an agreement between the Institute of Standards and Industrial Research of Iran and the Sri Lanka Standards Institution, which handles standardization, measurement, training, laboratory services, and issuing of certificates. The two sides also signed an agreement with regard to the film industry, and a cultural deal with respect to cultural and scientific exchanges.

Technical engineering services

During the meeting, President Hassan Rouhani said that Iranian companies are ready to provide technical engineering services to Sri Lanka. Stressing that the two countries have reached good agreements in economic fields, which are of mutual interest to both, he said, “Relations between the two great Iranian and Sri Lankan nations go back to centuries ago.”

Last year, President Sirisena visited Qatar at a time when that country had been diplomatically isolated by its Arab neighbours and the US, over accusations that it was funding terrorism in the region. The decision taken by the President to visit must have been prompted by the fact that the Qatari Emir was the only West Asian Head of State to visit Sri Lanka in recent years.

However, some foreign policy analysts argued that he had antagonized the United States and its Middle Eastern allies like Saudi Arabia, when he paid a State visit to Qatar. Before the dust of criticism settled, President Sirisena undertook another State visit, this time to South Korea and the so-called foreign policy experts were totally baffled, as they were not sure whether the visit should be described as a pro-US gesture or not. Visits to Qatar, Iran, and South Korea were very beneficial to Sri Lanka.

There is absolutely no need for the US, Europe, China or India to worry about President Sirisena’s visits to countries they perceive as hostile, because those visits are very much in line with Sri Lanka’s middle path foreign policy.

“Iran and Sri Lanka have close views on regional and international issues, and I hope that the constructive interactions of the two countries in international organizations, including the Non-Aligned Movement and Asian conventions will continue as before,” said President Rouhani last week, describing the special relationship between the two countries. Furthermore, President Sirisena’s visit is very much in line with Sri Lanka’s middle path foreign policy and it should not be seen as an act of hostility towards the US

 By Sugeeswara Senadhira