In 1907, George Nathaniel Curzon, the British diplomat and
politician, declared that, "Frontiers are indeed the razor's edge on which hang
suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations."
Although Curzon would never witness the bloody territorial disputes in
Bosnia, Ethopia and the Mideast of the second half of the 20th century, he
proved prophetic. The most serious national conflicts in recent history often
have resulted from territorial disputes, and usually along volatile frontier
Consider the most complex diplomatic challenges facing the United States in
the 21st century: terrorism, immigration, ethnic warfare, energy resources and
nuclear proliferation. At its core, each of these issues centers on the
defense of the American homeland and its boundaries from foreign penetration,
whether economic or military.
As the U.S.-led coalition wages its war against Saddam Hussein's regime, it
would behoove America to remember that Curzon's words apply to almost every
country. Washington's recent warnings to Iran and Syria, two of Iraq's
neighbors, to stay out of the war could well be read in those capitals as
serious threats to their historical roles in the region, as well as their
sovereignty and stability.
Carved by the British out of three Ottoman provinces, Iraq has had to cope
with volatile frontiers since its emergence as a modern nation-state in 1920.
Northern Iraq, home to an autonomous Kurdish community, has faced hostile
incursions by Turkey, not to mention civil strife within its own territory.
Iraq itself launched a war of territorial aggression against Kuwait in 1991,
based on a historical claim that Kuwait had been wrongly detached from its
But perhaps Iraq's most precarious frontier remains its boundary with Iran.
Since the rule of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th to the early 20th century,
important cities such as Baghdad changed hands numerous times between the
Ottoman and Persian Empires. The most recent manifestation of this enmity is
the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, an internecine conflict that cost many lives
and did little to change the map of the Mideast. The war not only confirmed the
depth of ethnic conflict and political instability between these two
societies, it also explains Iran's intense interest in the developments in Iraq
Even if President George W. Bush had not singled out Iran as one leg of the
"Axis of Evil," that nation would have many reasons to possibly intervene in
post-Saddam Hussein politics. First, Iran maintains strong, longstanding ties
to the majority Shiite community in Iraq, and many Iraqi Shiites, like many
Iranians, are of Persian descent. It is worth remembering that in the 1920s,
the Iranian government complained about Iraq's nationality law on the basis
that many Persians had been forced wrongly to change their citizenship.
The two nations are traditional competitors over oil and vital trade routes
and resources, which all comes down to a question of where the border is
drawn. And there are historical connections. For instance, Ctesiphon, a city
near Baghdad and the capital of the ancient Persian Empire, has been surrounded
by Iraqi weapons. This is a site that, like the Shiite shrines of Najaf and
Karbala, remains dear to modern Iranians and would cause widespread anxiety if
damaged or destroyed in the war.
Finally, Iran continues to express concern about the rebel political group,
the Mujahidin-i Khalq, which resides in Iraq and has declared itself an avowed
enemy of the Islamic Republic.
For all of these reasons, Iran has many possible excuses for intervening in
Iraq on behalf of its national interests, particularly at a time when Iraq's
identity as a nation is becoming uncertain.
If Iraq's western boundary poses a serious threat to instability in the
post-Saddam Hussein era, so does Iraq's relationship with Syria, which was
accused last week by Secretary of State Colin Powell of supporting terrorist
groups "and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein." Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld said, "We have information of shipments of military supplies crossing
the border from Syria into Iraq."
Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has said he hopes that U.S. forces will
fail to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and if they do they will face popular
resentment that will prevent them from controlling the country.
Asad's comments reaffirmed Syria's historic connections to Iraq. Both are
centers of classical Islamic civilization, having been the capitals of Islam's
first two empires. In addition, Syria, like Iraq, adheres to Baathist ideology,
and although the Baath parties in the two nations have long since severed
ties, Syrians have sentimental reasons to remain interested in the fate of the
Finally, the ruling family of Syria are Alawites, believed to be an
offshoot of Shiism. It is possible that Syria may wish to use this opportunity
to strengthen its ties with the Iraqi Shiites. With the fall of Hussein, Syria
might want to emerge in a larger role as the voice of the Arab community.
The harsh words from Washington, unfortunately, are likely to fuel the
conflagrations that are smoldering along Iraq's borders. In the Mideast, where
frontier disputes have long plagued the region, territorial considerations have
become the cornerstone of contemporary politics and diplomacy. Even before the
advent of nationalism, societies competed fiercely over land and water
resources. This competition has remained a perennial feature of Mideast life,
as shown in the perpetual water disputes between Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said last Wednesday that Britain
would not join the United States in any military action against Iran or Syria
and he did not believe the United States intended any such action after the
war. But even if he is right, history suggests that the United States should
navigate carefully in this region.
Curzon wrote that, "Just as the protection of the home is the most vital
care of the private citizen, so the integrity of her borders is the condition
of existence of the State." And under the circumstances, Syria and Iran can be
expected to protect their interests and territorial integrity, even if it
brings them American disapproval or possibly military intervention.