The Geopolitical Implications of the Israel – Iran Conflict on Sri Lanka

by Wathsunu Rajinda Jayathilleka

Published on Asia Pacific Security Magazine on 29th May 2024.

The current Iran-Israel conflict engulfs the entire West Asia region which has openly affected global politics and the global economy. As a result of the Hamas-Israel conflict and Israel-Palestinian tensions, the conflict has spilled into the region by bringing other states, such as Iran, into the conflict. This conflict sparked tension in the region and the Islamic world. How will this regional conflict with the potential to cause a global-scale conflict affect Sri Lanka? How will Sri Lanka bracethis conflict? More importantly, how will Sri Lanka navigate in the stormy seas of the Iran-Israel conflict?

Something to think?

The ongoing Iran-Israel conflict is a highly intricate geopolitical issue that has profound implications for countries worldwide. One such country that may seem unrelated to this conflict is Sri Lanka, a South Asian Island nation. However, a closer look reveals that the Iran-Israel conflict has considerable implications for Sri Lanka, affecting its foreign policy, economy, and regional security.

Foreign policy to take the first hit.

First and foremost, The Iran-Israel conflict has important consequences for Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. As a country that has traditionally kept cordial relations with both Iran and Israel while maintaining its ‘Non-Aligned’ status, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is closely affected by this conflict. (Overview – Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Sri Lanka, 2020), Sri Lanka has been striving to maintain a neutral stance in the conflict between Iran and Israel, a challenge that has become more difficult recently due to the escalating tensions between the two countries. Despite this, Sri Lanka has managed to maintain diplomatic relations with both nations, which has earned it praise from Israel, particularly with regard to its stance on terrorism. For instance, with reference to Israeli analyst Shlomi Yass, the Sri Lankan Army purchased “advanced night vision and communications technology, artillery coordination systems, and Gabriel sea-to-sea missiles.

In addition, it acquired drones and ground stations, flak jackets, ammunition, thousands of Uzi submachine guns and Galil assault weapons, mortars, and 155-mm cannons” from Israel. Israel has recently supported Sri Lanka economically by providing labour market opportunities by recruiting Sri Lankans for job opportunities. Likewise, Iran has supported Sri Lanka in supporting to end the thirty-years separatist terrorist war waged by LTTEby providing military equipment, including economic assistance such as signing the Sri Lanka – Iran ‘tea-for-oil’ barter agreement, as well as the recent ‘Uma Oya Hydropower Complex’ which was constructed with Iranian technical assistance. of being complicit in Israeli aggression. This has put Sri Lanka in a precarious position where it must carefully manage its relationships with both countries to avoid being drawn into conflict.

Lanka’s economy and fate

The Iran-Israel conflict also has significant economic implications for Sri Lanka. As a small island nation, Sri Lanka relies heavily on international trade to drive its economy. However, this conflict has led to increased economic uncertainty, with both Iran and Israel imposing economic sanctions on each other. One critical example is the Red Sea conflict between the Yemen-based Houthis and US-led Western states. As the ‘Houthis’ backed by Iran began raiding Isarel convoys that were travelling through the Red Sea, the global trade supply chain was disrupted causing huge price soar in freight charges and cargo costs, increasing import prices in Sri Lanka as well.

Therefore, according to Reuters, prompting President Ranil Wickremesinghe to announce that the government would be deploying a navy vessel to the Red Sea to help defend shipping lanes along with Western nations. Although the conflict based on Yemen Houthis is considered a proxy war between Iran and Israel, the consequences of this event extended to the global economy, influencing trade and investment movements. Sri Lanka, which depends heavily on exports to countries such as the United States and the European Union, has experienced economic harm as a result. Additionally, the dispute has led to an increase in oil prices, intensifying Sri Lanka’s economic difficulties.

Security at risk

The Iran–Israel conflict also has significant security implications for Sri Lanka in reference to the proxy war based on Yemen Houthis. The escalating conflict in the Middle East has heightened tensions, with Iran and Israel involving themselves in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. This has fuelled concerns about the proliferation of terrorism and extremism in the region, which hold significant ramifications for Sri Lanka’s national security.

As a country that has experienced terrorism in the past, Sri Lanka understands the threats posed by extremism and the importance of preserving regional stability. For instance, the majority of the Muslim community opposed Isarel’s actions in its war against Hamas in Gaza. According to Uditha Devapriya, an international relations analyst, reporting to ‘GROUNDVIEWS’ the sensitive issue of Palestine is deeply rooted within the Muslim community of Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is believed that this posing might be a possible sentiment towards favouring extremism in reaction to the ongoing violence against the Palestinian people in Gaza.

Big players and their eyes on us

In relation to foreign policy, the economy, and the security aspect of this conflict, it is important to understand how major powers evaluate Sri Lanka’s stance in this particular conflict. Afterall, Sri Lanka is an important island that is located in a sensitive geopolitical position. In terms of sensitivity, Sri Lanka’s stance and position also affected the major powers in the region and the outer region. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Asia-Pacific continent consists of major powers that are contributing to sharpening the global political order. China, India, Russia, Japan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are the major powers within the region.

It is important to understand how building strategic relations between Iran and Sri Lanka will attract the attention of these major powers. It is also important to analyse specifically these major powers attention towards the bilateral relationships of Sri Lanka with Iran and Israel. In particular, China and India have observed the development of these bilateral relationships. In the Iranian context, it is important to note how Iran has secured a positive image in geopolitics among China, India, and Russia within the region through multilateralism. Iran shares a common multilateral platform that favours geopolitical considerations with the mentioned countries by being a member state of BRICS and Shanghai Security Cooperation(SCO).

Further increasing economic cooperation and security cooperation between Iran and the following countries have strengthened Teheran’s geopolitical position; for instance, China, Russia, and Iran conducted joint military drills in the Gulf of Oman, and the proposed International North–South Transport Corridor, which, by building a logistics and transport network comprising India, Iran, and Russia, are certain initiatives that can be considered. Therefore, such aspects can strengthen the geopolitical autonomy of Sri Lanka through Iran’s bilateral relationship which favours major regional powers, especially in China and India. However, as everything presents an opportunity cost, the Israel backed Western camp will consider this geopolitical alignment as a threat to their strategies, deteriorating relations with the West.

Although the geopolitical location of states is an important factor, it is necessary to evaluate the economic opportunities presented by Israel to Sri Lanka. As mentioned, Israel helped Sri Lanka by providing military equipment to eradicate the separatist LTTE in Sri Lanka and providing economic opportunities like foreign employment to Sri Lankans. Western countries that support Israel consider the positive gesture of Sri Lanka towards Israel as a critical factor. For instance, in reference to the United States of America Sir Lankan Embassy press release on 23 February 2024 the US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Verma appreciated Sri Lanka for deploying its navy, along with its western nations, led Navy to the Red Sea to secure Israeli logistics shipments, on his visit to Sri Lanka. Therefore, Sri Lanka is attempting to maintain its foreign policy on a tight rope.

The path

The delicacy of the non-aligned foreign policy of Sri Lanka is a cornerstone in Sri Lanka’s geopolitical history. From the global cold war to regional conflicts like the Indo-Pakistan war in 1975 and the India-China war in 1962, Sri Lanka has managed to maintain its non-aligned foreign principles. Therefore, it is important to re-iterate the stance of non-alignment in the Iran-Israel conflict. The non-alignment stance does consist of challenges to maintain its status quo in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.

However, Sri Lanka’s actions during the conflict has shown that it can upheld to its foreign policy principles. More importantly, the diplomatic missions abroad can be considered as a major driving force for upholding those principles. For instance, according to Israeli news reporter Jerusalem Post in December 2023 the, the Sri Lankan diplomatic mission staff and the ambassador in Israel himself, donated blood in response for the October 7th attack by Hamas. Likewise, the Minister of foreign affairs Sri Lanka, in a press release on 10th of April 2024, openly condemned the Israeli attack on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus. Therefore, the Sri Lankan foreign missions and diplomatic staff can be considered as the vanguard in upholding the ‘Non-aligned’ foreign principles of Sri Lanka.

The Iran-Israel conflict has significant implications for Sri Lanka, impacting its foreign policy, economy, and regional security. As a small island nation, Sri Lanka must navigate a delicate balancing act to maintain good relations with both Iran and Israel while avoiding being drawn into the conflict. The economic implications of the conflict are also significant, with Sri Lanka’s economy suffering from increased economic uncertainty.

Furthermore, the conflict has significant implications for regional security in South Asia, with Sri Lanka being keenly aware of the need to maintain regional stability. As the Iran-Israel conflict continues to escalate, it is essential that Sri Lanka remains vigilant and proactive in maintaining its independence and sovereignty as well as remaining neutral in this conflict for the sake of protecting its foreign policy status.

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* Mr. U.G. Wathsunu Rajinda Jayathilleka is an Intern (Research)at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established and functioning under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed are his own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.