On May 16, 1916, English diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, Georges Picot, sat in the building of the British Foreign Office to sign an agreement that will become known by their names for decades to come. Sitting behind them were Paul Cambon, the French ambassador to the court of St James, and British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Gray, who raised his glass after the agreement was signed and toasted: “Let’s drink to an agreement for the future of the next hundred years.”
The three-page agreement had 12 clauses and a map marked by straight geometric lines that were to become the borders of the new entities that would be established after the Ottoman Empire’s demise and shared by France and Britain. The partition did not take into account rivers, mountains, and demographic diversity, instead joining together different groups, ethnicities, and sects with a history of conflicts and hatred for each other. But the old colonial countries did not find that troublesome; instead, these differences would enable them to establish their control by inciting disputes and sedition and interfering to divide and control. This state of affairs continued long after the demise of the old colonizers and the rise of new superpowers and regional powers that aspire to expand and dominate by playing on societal conflicts inside those entities.
Perhaps Lebanon is the best example. In the small Mediterranean country, the society is divided on a sectarian basis. In fact, sectarianism has been rooted in Lebanon’s constitution, albeit as a temporary arrangement. However, there was no serious effort to climb out of the infernal cycle of sectarianism, which kept repeating itself for decades. Under this approach, the individual receives protection, employment, medical care, and education from the sect to which they belong, not from the state. Interestingly, the various sects often derive their strength from abroad, thus greenlighting the interference of foreign countries in internal affairs and their control of political decisionmaking.
Since its independence in 1943, Lebanon has seen many interventions that infiltrated the country through sectarian divisions, from Nasserism, to the armed Palestinian presence, to the Syrian intervention legitimized as the so-called “Arab Deterrence Forces,” to the Taif Agreement, to the Israeli occupation. Today, Lebanon finds itself in the grip of an Iranian project that, once again, infiltrated through a sect. But unlike other interventions, this project jeopardizes the idea and specificity of Lebanon as a country. It abolishes Lebanon as the world has known it since its establishment and destroys all the features of the country, which was built on at least a modicum of coexistence through dialogue and consensus on the entity’s continuity as a hub for finance, education, medicine, trade, and tourism in the region. The Iranian project has greatly contributed to ending this hub and does not even deny it. Its arm in the country, Hezbollah, boasts that the past Lebanon, which it viewed as no more than a nightclub and a place of debauchery and promiscuity, has ended, and has now become a launchpad for resistance against Israel and the United States and support for the weak populations of the world. This project seeks to destroy the country’s structure and rebuild it on foundations that it lays down per its unchallengeable whims and interests.
The same thing happens wherever the Persian state establishes a foothold: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Gaza are no better off than Lebanon. Remarkably, Tehran has transformed Hamas in Gaza into an Iranian version of the group. Last Sunday, Hamas issued a statement “in response to the statements made in the past few days and the chants launched in our Palestinian arena against Arab and Gulf countries,” which said: “We adopt a policy of openness to the various countries and peoples of the world, especially the Arab and Islamic peoples and countries, which we respect and appreciate,” as if Hamas is Persian, not Arab!
In any case, there is great doubt that the Iranian project will succeed in the medium and long terms for various reasons, not least of which is Iran’s tragic socioeconomic situation at home, but also given the many international conflicts facing Iran’s regime, as well as the societies’ refusal of Iran’s arrogant ideas and behaviors. All the above make the project’s success unlikely. However, the consequences of Iran’s tampering with societies are comparable to the repercussions of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in terms of dimensions.
Iran is treacherous. It condemns the raids that its own proxies launch on the Baghdad Airport because Muqtada al-Sadr refused to yield to its orders to form a government ruled by those proxies. Now, here it is trying to sabotage Jordan by smuggling drugs and implicating the country in conflicts with Gulf states, but Jordan was wise enough to kill these plans in the womb. Tehran moves its puppets and looks the other way, but now the fall of Shabwa ruined all its plans. After destroying many Arab states through its proxies, Tehran tried to cause destruction in Gulf states and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in particular. Moreover, although Abu Dhabi expressed good intentions towards Tehran and a desire for good neighborliness, Iran could not accept its defeat with the Houthis’ loss of Ma’rib and puppeteered the latter in an attempt to destabilize the UAE. Iran wants to prove its ability to mobilize its militias and terrorist groups in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, while playing a double game with the West in Vienna.
The fact of the matter –and here, we understand why Hassan Nasrallah launches an attack on Saudi Arabia every day– is that the new policy adopted by the Kingdom, with the decisions taken by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to open up and open the Kingdom’s doors to tourists and investments, infuriated Iran’s rulers, who have long bet that the Middle East cannot accommodate two major countries: it’s either Iran or Saudi Arabia. The Iranian regime relied on tourism to a great extent, and now the Kingdom attracts tourists from all over the world, not minding Iranian threats. An Iranian source told me that Iran would not allow the Kingdom to compete with it in the field of tourism. Thus, Iran moved its puppets in Yemen. In return, despite the cost of this war on the Yemeni people–when has Iran ever cared about the lives of the Arab peoples?– and on Saudi Arabia, the latter knew how to carry on with its economic, financial, and tourism project. Meanwhile, Iran remained entangled in boycotts and its pariah terrorist state, despite the fanfare of its officials and agents which no longer frighten anyone, except to the extent that Arab officials fear for their people and their achievements.
Therefore, it must be recognized that as long as the Iranian regime and its proxies, be it the Houthis, Hamas, Hezbollah, or other terrorist entities, exist, there will be no stability in the Middle East and the world must expect more threats. These threats are not costly to Iran, neither financially nor humanly, even if Tehran reached an agreement on the nuclear deal with the West. This is the reality. What is needed is a change in Iran’s ways, which will not happen, because such a change means a change in the regime, and this is what’s required if the world is concerned with the fate and stability of the Iranian and Arab peoples. Now, Iran is trying to establish an alliance with Russia and China, which have never agreed to the extent they do presently.
Let us get back to Iran’s role in Lebanon because it is part of a whole. If we look at Hezbollah’s positions and actions, we can see how it dragged Lebanon into a direct confrontation with the Arab countries that oppose the Iranian regime. Such a confrontation, which had never happened since Lebanon’s establishment, obliterates its identity and history, leading to the loss of one of the country’s backbones in times of hardship and putting the interests of the Lebanese who subsist from exporting to their Arab brothers at stake.
The policy of confronting Arab countries by order of the Persians led to the initiative of the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister, Dr. Ahmad Nasser al-Muhammad al-Sabah, who asked the Lebanese state for a clear position on several questions by last Sunday, making it more of an ultimatum than an initiative.
Through Hezbollah, Iran seized the decision of war and peace in Lebanon. Now, here is the party’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, threatening to use weapons to impose his will, angrily scolding a judge for doing his job and losing his mind because he could not “uproot” him (what a fine language), not even hiding his commitment to “realizing the wishes of the Wali al-Faqih, his master, leader, and lord.” This has led to the rise of many calls in Lebanon for secession from the mother state in order to protect whatever remained of Lebanon and its interests and to detach it from a Persian culture that does not resemble it, one that is based on murder, oppression, assault, the rule of the Wali al-Faqih, and the intimidation of the Lebanese Shia environment itself.
Since the signing of Sykes-Picot, five entities have remained: Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. Britain agreed to make Palestine a homeland for the Jews: Israel was established, and the people of Palestine were displaced. As for the other entities, they did not enjoy stability. The ethnic, religious, and tribal differences are ignited every now and then, camouflaged under trivial ideological guises, false slogans, and constant deception.
In September 2013, the Washington Post published an in-depth report on the future of the region after the outbreak of war in Syria. The report drew a map that shows the partition of five countries into 14 states, with the separation of nine ethnic and sectarian entities. Several articles were subsequently issued by prestigious American research centers, summed up by the American researcher Steven Cook in Foreign Policy in the idea that conflict resolution happens through the emergence of entities that protect their respective components and end unease, extremism, and violence among them.
In the near future, the Arab world may witness an end to Sykes-Picot, but the alternative seems vague and far from reassuring, especially since those who tamper with the affairs of groups within entities, specifically the Iranian regime, do not have as clear and realistic a vision as Sykes and Picot’s, which yielded an agreement that lasted for over a century.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.