The Sykes-Picot Agreement Didn’t Create the Borders of the Modern Middle East—and Redrawn Borders Won’t Fix Its Problems

Nov. 10 2016

A common refrain of Western commentators writing about the Middle East is that its problems stem in part from the supposedly artificial borders drawn up by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in the 1916 agreement that bears their names. However, David Siddhartha Patel explains, not only was the agreement never implemented, but the order that existed prior to 1914 was neither wholly imposed from without nor wholly artificial:

Europeans did not draw borders willy-nilly, without regard to local factors. Local actors and historical precedents played important roles in determining not only what borders were drawn but even which proposed states survived and which did not. The Sykes-Picot agreement, for example, awarded much of south-central Turkey . . . to the French zone of direct influence; these and later efforts to carve up Anatolia were stymied by [the Turkish ruler] Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Local actors and politics [also] heavily influenced the specific location of the Iraq-Syria border. . . .

Local precedents for seemingly “artificial” states also mattered more than analysts often recognize. For example, scholars have demonstrated the extent to which the modern state of Iraq had Ottoman administrative roots.

As for erasing the established borders, writes Patel, the idea is nothing new. But while many Western observers have proposed the creation of new and smaller national or sectarian states as an antidote to current conflict, many residents of the Middle East envision the opposite:

Islamic State’s rhetoric of erasing borders is similar to that of other post-Ottoman supra-nationalist movements in the region, including the Baath parties of both Iraq and Syria, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, and the Syrian Social Nationalist party, which advocates a Greater Syria encompassing the Levant and Mesopotamia, from Lebanon to Kuwait. . . . In [a] sense, Islamic State’s transnational Islamism echoes Arab nationalists’ calls, with “Muslim” substituted for “Arab.” . . .

For most Arabs, the true “end of Sykes-Picot” would mean the end of imperial-era divisions created deliberately to ensure the region’s long-term dependence on and subordination to the West. Existing states would not collapse down to atomistic ethnic and sectarian groups; rather, populations would unite. . . . Arabs, and perhaps the wider Islamic world, would cease to be divided into distinct [political] entities. Both the Western and Arab views see the borders of the Middle East as artificial, but they differ considerably in their expectations of whether those borders would dissolve through expansion or retraction.

Read more at Crown Center for Middle East Studies

More about: History & Ideas, ISIS, Middle East, Sykes-Picot Agreement


Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy