I don’t spend a lot of time looking back, but this week I’ve been thinking a great deal about my dissertation which was published almost twenty-five years ago. Triggered by recent headlines detailing a drone strike in the middle of Isfahan, Iran, the royal city of Shah Abbas the Great, I’ve been looking at what I got right, and even more at what I got wrong.
In my past research, I examined the unintended spillover effects of Cold War militarism on three cities – Isfahan, Iran; Taipei, Taiwan; and Havana, Cuba – and I concluded that while global forces were definitely in play, after two revolutions (Cuba and Iran) and a process resulting in democratic elections (Taiwan), the local might prevail.
I expected that with the end of the Cold War, and as a consequence of domestic forces rejecting outside interference, we would no longer see militarism have much of an impact on the urban environment. Unfortunately, this has not necessarily been the case.
So I’m taking another look at “my” cities, examining especially the forces impacting their development today.
Regarding Isfahan, I wrote in 2000 that it was known worldwide as one of the most beautiful ‘museum cities’ on the planet.
I was fortunate enough to live and work there during the last days of the shah, and I vividly remember the domes of Isfahan’s mosques and madrasehs shimmering bright turquoise in the desert sun, vibrant reminders of Shah Abbas and the consolidated power of Shi’ism. My memories are of the pleasures of the ‘old bazaar’, long walks through the city’s neighborhoods, lazy afternoons drinking tea in the beautiful garden of the Shah Abbas Hotel (renamed the Abbasi Hotel), and the many tours I led all over the country.
So I was surprised, even shocked, to pick up The New York Times the other day and find an article titled “Israel Launched Drone Attack on Iranian Facility, Officials Say.” I was even more distressed to find that the missile production facility they were referring to was in the heart of Isfahan. It was jarring to read the follow-up paragraph:
While the target’s purpose is unclear, the city of Isfahan is a major center of Iranian missile production, research and development.
I’ve kept up with Iran’s nuclear issue, but I haven’t followed Iran’s missile development, other than to know that the country is alleged to be supplying missiles to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine. I didn’t know that
Isfahan is a major center of missile production, research and development for Iran, including the assembly of many of its Shahab medium-range missiles, which can reach Israel and beyond. (NY Times, 1/29/2023)
I also didn’t know that there was an ammunition production plant in the middle of the city of roughly two million people.
I did recall reading that Isfahan is also the site of four small nuclear research facilities, all supplied by China many years ago.
Still, the facility that was struck on Saturday was in the middle of the city and did not appear to be nuclear-related. Clearly, I’m not as up to date as I could be.
In my dissertation I discussed in detail the impact that military-led development was having on the domicile of Shah Abbas.
I talked about how Isfahan’s ageless beauty was under siege, battered by an influx of foreign workers, Iranian military personnel, and poorly conceived development plans.
Young men were flooding into the city from villages all over Iran hoping to find work associated with the new push toward military-led industrialization, and Pakistani and Afghani laborers were brought in to help with the many construction projects associated with the burgeoning defense industry.
Regrettably, over the course of just a few years, residential development and new industry – much of it related to the mushrooming military-industrial complex – had succeeded in altering the traditional character of Isfahan and alienating long-time residents.
But now I wonder: How did a revolution grounded in tradition and aid to the poor become so militaristic that ammunition facilities and missile production plants are now planted in the middle of a city known for its mosques, its ancient bazaar, and its royal palaces?
Another one of my cities, Taipei, Taiwan, has also been in the news, with reports that China has been menacing the island nation repeatedly. You may remember that in late December 2022:
China sent a record number of military aircraft to menace self-ruled Taiwan in a large show of force to the Biden administration, signaling that Beijing wants to maintain pressure on Taiwan even as some tensions between the superpowers are easing.
The swarm of Chinese fighter jets, maritime patrol planes and drones that buzzed the airspace near Taiwan in the 24-hour period leading to Monday morning demonstrated Beijing’s appetite for confrontation with the United States over Taiwan, the island democracy China claims as its territory. (NY Times, 12/26/2022)
Earlier, in September of 2022, President Joe Biden made headlines when he asserted in a 60 Minutes interview that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China were to launch an unprovoked attack.
Consequently, some analysts fear a Chinese attack on Taiwan has the potential to draw the United States into a war with China.
Reuters published an article asserting “Biden says U.S. forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.” But how likely is that?
No one knows, but a quick Google search on the topic shows that it’s hotly debated.
What we do know is that from 1950 to the present, the United States has been heavily invested in the island and in its capital Taipei. Described as a strategic-arsenal by General Douglas MacArthur, Taipei reflects US Cold War determination to militarily contain the Soviet Union and now, more importantly, the Chinese communists.
Despite the end of the Cold War, Taipei remains a city for whom the terms communist and anti-communist remain internally meaningful. This despite the fact that Taipei’s decision to trade with communist countries has tempered its role as a center of anti-communist activities. In fact, as of August 1922, Taiwan’s economy remains reliant on trade with China, which is the island’s largest trading partner.
Still, differences over Taiwan’s status have fueled rising tensions between the island and the mainland.
Taiwan has been governed independently of China since 1949, but Beijing views the island as part of its territory, and has vowed to eventually “unify” Taiwan with the mainland, using force if necessary.
In Taiwan, which has its own democratically elected government and is home to twenty-three million people, political leaders have differing views on the island’s status and relations with the mainland.
In 1979, the United States established formal diplomatic relations with Mainland China (the PRC). At the same time, it severed its diplomatic ties and abrogated its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan (the ROC). But the United States maintains a robust unofficial relationship with the island and continues to sell defense equipment to its military. Beijing has repeatedly urged Washington to stop selling weapons to and cease contact with Taipei. You can read a backgrounder on the tense relationship between the two nations here.
Through its policy of strategic ambiguity, the United States has for decades attempted to maintain a delicate balance between supporting Taiwan and preventing a war with China. But President Joe Biden has seemingly rejected the policy, stating several times that the United States will come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacks.
For more insight into US policy regarding Taiwanese independence read a blog post by David Sanger on the Council on Foreign Relations blog.
A top concern among U.S. analysts is that China’s growing military capabilities and assertiveness, as well as the deterioration in cross-strait relations, could spark a conflict. However, experts disagree about the likelihood and timing of a Chinese invasion.
The Biden administration has announced that the Cold War Era is definitely over, and early in its tenure it took action to reorient foreign policy priorities with a new focus on China and Asia, reducing the number of staff devoted to the Middle East. Their success in doing so, however, may be impacted by a new government in Israel and its perception that Iran is a major threat.
And so I wonder: What is happening in Taipei given all the blustering? Is the capital responding economically to the perceived military threat by an increased emphasis on arms purchases and the prioritization of defense production facilities? And, even more importantly, what will happen to the stability of its democratic institutions? Will they collapse in light of the overwhelming military strength of the mainland Chinese?
Of “my” three Cold War Cities, only Havana seems less scary, more impacted by the economic absence of a Cold War patron than by growing military prowess.
Nevertheless, despite the death of Fidel Castro, and the retirement of his brother, Raul, the Caribbean island has not become the capitalist haven that many Americans expected – or at least hoped for. Instead, the nation remains a pariah in the eyes of many in the United States.
Legally shut off from the United States, Cuba’s relationship with China is going strong. Relations are based on trade, credits, and investments, which have increased significantly since the 1990s. China is Cuba’s second-largest trading partner after Venezuela, and Cuba is a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative for trade. China has partnered with Cuba to upgrade its rail network and other initiatives.
Interestingly, Cuba has turned to Russsia for advice on reinvigorating the island’s private sector. The February 1, 2023, issue of the Miami Herald reports on the creation of a “Center for Economic Transformation,” in partnership with the Moscow-based Stolypin Institute for the Economy of Growth. Read more here.
The United States policy toward both Cuba and Venezuela, nations that have had a close relationship since Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela in 1999, are in a state of flux.
In May 2022, over a roughly 24-hour period, the US administration announced that
Biden is expanding the number of flights to Cuba and ending restrictions on money that immigrants can send to people on the island, a vestige of Trump’s hard-line Cuba policy. The administration . . . said it would ease sanctions on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government if he commits to talks with U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized as the country’s leader by nearly 60 nations, including the U.S.
Meanwhile, increased Cuban migration to US has been an aggravation. You can read a Cold War Studies post about Cuban Migration to the US in 2022 here.
More recently a new parole program for Cuban migrants has been established. The Center for Democracy in the Americas reports details in its US-Cuba News Brief (1/18/2023):
The new parole program–modeled after an existing program for Venezuelans that began in October 2022–allows for up to 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans per month to enter the country by air through “humanitarian parole” if they fulfill the eligibility criteria, including that they are located outside of the US, apply electronically, and have a U.S.-based sponsor that can financially support them for the duration of their parole. The program allows migrants to live and work in the US for two years. The Biden-Harris administration’s new measures also carry expanded limits to asylum for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans and, consequently, “expedited removal,” or deportation, as permitted under Title 42, drawing criticism that the program violates migrants’ right to seek asylum as recognized by U.S. and international law.
In the case of Havana I wonder (and not just facetiously): Will there ever be anything new under the sun? Will Cubans ever have the food, medicine, and safe housing they need to have a secure and worry free lifestyle?
Even so, why is the child mortality rate in this poor country lower than that of the United States? And, as Newsweek reported in September 2022, why is it that ‘Americans Can Now Expect to Live Three Years Less Than Cubans’? (You can read the article here?)
Where To Go From Here
It occurs to me after this cursory overview that my dissertation could use more than a little bit of updating, so I’ll be spending some time looking at the legacy of the Cold War in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia this coming year. I hope you’ll come back often and subscribe. This won’t be the topic of discussion every week, but it will crop up as a major theme at times.
Also watch for an announcement about a new Cold War Studies fun program — coming soon!
Featured Image by Fulvio Spada (Flickr)