On January 4, President Trump warned Iran against seeking revenge for the killing of Qassem Soleimani. The head of the elite Qods Force died in a U.S. airstrike shortly after he arrived at Baghdad’s International Airport on January 3. Trump specified that Washington had identified 52 sites of “importance to Iran and the Iranian culture” that could be targeted in the event of Iranian retaliation.
Trump’s tweet drew condemnation domestically and internationally. Critics said strikes on cultural sites would amount to war crimes. The military use or targeting of cultural sites was prohibited under Article 53 of the Geneva Convention in 1977. The U.N. Security Council condemned the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage in 2017, after ISIS and other terrorist groups destroyed cultural sites and looted artifacts.
Trump initially defended his threat to target cultural sites. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. they’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites. It doesn’t work that way,” he told reporters on January 5.
But on January 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper both stated that all U.S. military action would be consistent with international law. Trump also backtracked on his initial threat. “You know what, if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law,” he told reporters in the Oval Office as he met with the Greek prime minister.
The following are statements by U.S. officials on the targeting of Iranian cultural sites and reactions to Trump’s threat.
President Donald Trump
....targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2020
“They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. they’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites. It doesn’t work that way.”
—Jan. 5, 2020, in remarks to the press on Air Force One
“You know what, if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law. But think of it: They kill our people, they blow up our people and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions. But I’m OK with it. It’s OK me."
“I will say this: if Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly,”
—Jan. 5, 2020, in remarks to the reporters in the Oval Office
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
“The American people should know that we will not waver. We will be bold in protecting American interests and we will do so in a way that is consistent with the rule of law… and President Trump’s tweet doesn’t deviate from that one iota.”
—Jan. 5, 2020, during an interview with CNN
“Every target that’s being reviewed, every effort that’s made will be conducted inside the international laws of war.”
“Every action we take will be consistent with international law… The real threat to Persian culture does not come from the United States.”
—Jan. 7, 2020, during a press briefing
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper
“We will follow the laws of armed conflict.”
“That's the laws of armed conflict (in response to being asked if that meant not targeting cultural sites).”
—Jan. 6, 2020, in response to questions by CNN’s Barbara Starr
“I am fully confident that the president, the commander in chief, will not give us an illegal order.”
“As I said, the United States military will, as it always has, obey the laws of armed conflict.”
—Jan. 7, 2020, to reporters
Senior White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway
“Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo said yesterday that we will be within the law, and I think that Iran has many military, strategic military sites that you may cite are also cultural sites.”
“He didn't say he's targeting cultural sites. He said that he was openly asking the question why in the world they're allowed to maim people, put out roadside bombs, kill our people, torture our people ... he said that they identified 52 sites.”
—Jan. 6, 2020, in a White House press conference
Reactions to President Trump’s Tweet
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif
A reminder to those hallucinating about emulating ISIS war crimes by targeting our cultural heritage:— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 5, 2020
Through MILLENNIA of history, barbarians have come and ravaged our cities, razed our monuments and burnt our libraries.
Where are they now?
We’re still here, & standing tall.
International Committee of The Red Cross
Attacks on:— ICRC (@ICRC) January 6, 2020
Are attacks on:
Cultural property is protected under law. Even during war. pic.twitter.com/Dxa4kBDaeo
Archaeological Institute of America (AIA)
"The AIA… condemns any intentional targeting of Iranian cultural heritage sites in unequivocal terms. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the U.S. Department of Defense's Law of War Manual prohibit the intentional destruction of cultural heritage during armed conflict except in situations when targeting is imperative for a legitimate military goal. The AIA calls upon President Trump and the U.S. Department of Defense to protect civilians and cultural heritage in Iran, and to reaffirm that U.S. military forces will comply only with lawful military orders."
—Jan. 6, 2020, in a written statement
Founder of Antiquities Coalition Deborah Lehr
“The U.S. has taken a leadership role in the protection of antiquities from destruction and illicit trade, particularly in the Middle East. It would be a shame to see that global good will disappear by the intentional targeting and the destruction of cultural sites.”
—Jan. 5, 2020, in a statement to New York Times
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT)
Targeting civilians and cultural sites is what terrorists do. It's a war crime.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 5, 2020
Trump is stumbling into a war of choice. A war entirely of his making. A war that will get thousands of Americans killed.
Congress must stop him. https://t.co/446VOGmeZW
—Jan. 4, 2020, written statement on Twitter
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
“The targeting of cultural sites… That is not appropriate.”
—Jan. 7, 2020, to the press
Representative Don Bacon (R-NE)
“The President will not order an attack on cultural sites, I’m quite confident of that. But even if he did, the military would not do it.”
—Jan. 7, 2020, in an interview to CNN
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay
“Ms. Azoulay stressed the universality of cultural and natural heritage as vectors of peace and dialogue between peoples, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations.”
—Jan. 6, 2020, in a UNESCO statement on a meeting between Azoulay and Iranian Ambassador to UNESCO Ahmad Jalali