International Peace Studies Centre - IPSC

Sykes-Picot Agreement and the continuing Middle East crisis in Interview with Dr Adib-Moqadam


IPSC: The Sykes-Picot Agreement has been instrumental in drawing the political map and security order of the  Middle East for the past century, recently ISIS has rejected it and labelled it as a “Religious Heresy”, what is your opinion in this regard?


AARSHIN ADIB-MOGHADAM: There is no doubt that the colonial order ruptured the history of the Arab and Muslim world. Sykes-Picot was one of the abominations of the colonial era which was based on doctrines of racism and domination. The term “Middle East” itself is intrinsically Eurocentric. It was invented by an American naval strategist called Alfred T. Mahan and it designates the position of the region in relation to Europe. I have made clear in my most recent book, On the Arab revolts and the Iranian revolution, that it would be rather more geographically accurate and politically neutral to refer to that region as West Asia and North Africa (WANA).

IPSC:How do you think of sykes-pikot’s function in handling Middle East Regional Order? Do you think Sykes-Picot Agreement’s malfunction is a source of emerging of fundamental groups like Isis and al-Qaeda in Middle East which contest current regional Order?


ARSHIN ADIB-MOGHADAM: Surely, the current order has proven to be unsustainable, not at least due to the inability of regional powers such as Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to find a common ground. Yet the semi-literate and ideologically degenerate leadership of ISIS is not in the position to facilitate that change or demand it because the alternative model that they are espousing is even more tyrannical than the colonial order that they profess to combat. What the region needs are movements in the name of rights, representation and opportunity, movements that embrace life. ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliated groups facilitate the exact opposite. They embrace death and destruction. They are agents of terror and they are homicidal because at their ideological core they negate the existence of humanity beyond the confines of their sect.

But no one should lose hope. The Arab revolts ushered into an era when citizens were able to think in non-colonial terms. As a result Tunisia has managed to establish the first fully fledged democracy in the Arab world, whereas Egypt has not made the leap forward yet. Hence, the citizens of the region already think beyond Sykes-Picot. This new generation is not burdened by the colonial complex of the old guards. Yet, apart from Tunisia, the governments in charge of regional countries have not progressed in lieu with these preference settings of their citizenry. Politicians continue to shadow box with a colonial past for rhetorical purposes and they are quick to blame everyone else but themselves for the problems that the people are facing on a daily basis. They have not managed to forge a regional order which secures peace and prosperity. It is them, alas, who have not discarded the colonial mindset and who have betrayed the lives of generations of people who deserve to live with security and freedom.

 IPSC: Do you think there is a possibility of the balkanization of the Middle East?


ARSHIN ADIB –MOGHADAM: I don’t think that a historical comparison is analytically prudent. I don’t anticipate the balkanisation of West Asia. Nation-states seem strong enough to secure their sovereignty and legitimacy. Iraq is a special case, but even there the Kurds won’t be able to simply break away from the rest of the country without major repercussions. What is apparent, however, is that the principles of “Westphalia”, i.e. the centrality of nation-states with their own seemingly “distinct” national narratives that are typically antagonistic towards the “other”, have failed. The area needs a new form of transnational politics, strategies that carve out the common heritage, culture and history of this intimately linked area of the world. In Latin America it was the Bolivarian narrative espoused by the late Hugo Chavez that empowered regional leaders to think beyond nationalisms. As a result, Latin America has achieved a non-colonial order which is largely independent from US hegemony. This process which has produced the democratic governments in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador etc. constitutes a radical shift from the past when the US reigned supreme and when it propped up dictators such as Pinochet in Chile or Noriega in Panama. In West Asia and North Africa such inclusive narratives emphasising political and social emancipation have not emerged. The destructive politics of “identity” in the name of Shi’ism, Sunnism, Iranianism, Arabism and western efforts to maximise divisions between the peoples of the region are to blame. As a result, people are dying and this area continues to be one of the most insecure in the world.

IPSC: What is the impact of U.S. departure from Middle East on Middle East’s Regional order?


ARSHIN ADIB –MOGHADAM: The United States has shifted its approach towards the region from a hard power strategy to a soft power one. The current trajectory is rather comparable to the Nixon dual pillar doctrine in the 1970s which empowered Iran and Saudi Arabia as regional policemen who would secure US interests, i.e. preventing communist/Soviet intrusion into West Asia and North Africa. I have to re-emphasise at the same time that the United States and the so called “west” in general is a secondary factor in regional politics. The current anarchy, the structure disorderly horror in Iraq and Syria is an outcome of the incompetency of regional leaders.

IPSC: To what extent should a future regional order in the Middle East be based on indigenous security character?

ARSHIN ADIB –MOGHADAM: There is no “order” in West Asia and North Africa. There are no institutions, norms, systems that formally prevent war and confrontation. There is no Human Rights Charter that would secure the rights of the citizens as the European Union institutionalised. There is no regional economic block such as ASEAN in East Asia or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America – Peoples’ Trade Treaty in Latin America which is based on an ideology of independence and self-determination. There are no forums that are inclusive and which work towards convergences of interest. While people are dying of war in Syria and Iraq, Iranian and Arab pseudo-intellectuals get agitated about the naming of the Persian Gulf. When I was at Oxford a few years ago one of the fellows indicated the Gulf should be renamed the “Cape of Good Hope”. I thought his sarcasm rather poignant. West Asia and North Africa need a new politics of hope geared to norms, institutions and systems of thought that accentuate human dignity, freedom, security, social emancipation and equality. These were the calls driving the mass movements of the past and this history has shown that they will continue to be called upon in the future. Once the countries are pacified from within, once there is a social contract between the people and the governments which strengthen the existence of both in a dialectical manner, security will grow organically from the bottom-up, from society to the states and from there to the wider international environment. This is the grand project of this generation of Arabs, Iranians, Muslims, Christians, Jews, workers, students, women, business leaders, Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrians, Alawites, employees, union leaders etc.

IPSC: How do you see the exacerbation of Ethnical identities and the possibility of divergence in Middle East?


ARSHIN ADIB –MOGHADAM: We are faced with an interesting dilemma: On the one side national identities have strengthened after the colonial period. Governmental Institutions, bureaucracies, museums, schoolbooks, poems, musicals and national media channels have buttressed the idea of national coherence. At the same time these seemingly organic national narratives are being eroded from “below” by sub-nationalisms. The Kurdish case is prominent of course. I have maintained, however, that since Sykes-Picot the map of West Asia and North Africa has not radically altered. The Iraqs, Syrias, Jordans and Lebaonons are still there. Weak nation-states they may be in terms of their capacity to forge a national consensus, but the fact remains that they are still operating on the premise that they are one entity. One way of dealing with the threat of “balkanization” is to institutionalize federal structures and to create national narratives that are thin, versatile, inclusive, non-ideological and supported by functioning national institutions and a professional bureaucratic class. A second measure has to be supra-national, i.e. regional states would be well advised to move towards closer integration of trade relations, lifting visa restrictions, and creating a pluralistic and inclusive transnational identity discourse that speaks to Persian, Arab, Turkomen, Sunni, Shia, Christian, Jew, Kurd, Assyrian, Druze etc. at the same time. Where are our joint cultural festivals organized by Saudi, Iranian, Turkish or Iraqi artists? Where are our school and university exchanges between Turkish and Iranian schools? This is the art of high politics, a philosophy of pluralism: To minimize antagonism and to negate, as far as possible, blind spots that could be hijacked by radicals for their destructive purposes.If we would have moved into this direction by now, there would be no ISIS or al-Qaeda.


IPSC: In your opinion, to what extent current Middle East security developments could influence academic security studies?

ARSHIN ADIB –MOGHADAM: Middle Eastern Studies continues to lag behind developments in the region. Theoretically largely impoverished, methodologically reactionary and conceptually thin, the discipline continues to foster scholarship that is mainstream, geared to conventional wisdom which is tainted by political considerations. Counter-narratives from critical theorists, post-colonial scholars or post-structuralists continue to be marginal, certainly in the policy world. Attitudes are slowly changing, however, and this is largely due to a new generation of scholars with a critical mindset. Institutionally, the School of Oriental and African Studies, my current port of call, seems the closest to an avantgardist approach to the region which appreciates both the complexity of its peoples and states and the detrimental effect of uninformed western policies towards it. I have always regretted, especially due to the shortcomings of the discipline and the problematic political economy of truth making surrounding it, that authoritarianism and censorship have prevented a rather more intense dialogue between scholars in WANA itself and Europe/North America. Hence, we continue to be remote from a field of “truth” in which we could foster better understanding between both the people of the region themselves and beyond. Hope dies last, of course. Hence my above reference to a politics of hope that could translate our common aspirations into a new future.       

Interview by Farahbar

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