In menacing Iran’s cultural sites, Trump threatens to commit ‘a war crime’

The Trump administration has yet to offer any evidence backing its claim that last week’s killing of a senior Iranian official was legal under international law. Now the US president has also threatened to target Iran’s cultural sites – an action experts say would amount to committing a war crime.

President Donald Trump insisted Sunday that Iranian cultural sites were fair game for the US military, dismissing concerns that targeting the country’s heritage would constitute a war crime under international law.

Trump’s comments came amid escalating tensions in the Middle East following Friday’s strike on General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force, who was widely regarded as the second-most-powerful figure in the Iranian regime. Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike on an airport in Baghdad.

Iran has vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death, and Iraq’s parliament responded by voting Sunday to oust US troops based in the country – in turn, prompting Trump to threaten Baghdad with sanctions "like they've never seen before".

The US president first raised the prospect of targeting Iranian cultural sites in a tweet on Saturday evening, warning that if Iran attacks any American assets to avenge Soleimani’s killing, the US has 52 targets across the Islamic Republic that “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD".

Some are “important to Iran & Iranian culture”, Trump added.

Speaking with reporters Sunday as he returned to Washington from his holiday stay in Florida, the US president doubled down on his insistence that cultural sites were fair game.

“They’re allowed to kill our people. 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,” Trump said, according to a pool report.

His comments prompted fury in Iran and consternation among critics in the United States and around the world.

“Through MILLENNIA of history, barbarians have come and ravaged our cities, razed our monuments and burnt our libraries,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday. “Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall.”

After committing “grave breaches” in killing Soleimani, Trump is now threatening a “WAR CRIME” in targeting cultural sites, Zarif added.

Iran's wealth of historic monuments preserves the legacy of a civilisation that is a source of great pride among Iranians, from hard-liners in Tehran to the diaspora of Iranians in the West.

“I'm not sure when he [Trump] says cultural sites, does he, for example, mean our Persepolis?” asked Mehrdad Khadir, a cultural and political analyst in Tehran, referring in an interview with AP to the ancient ruins invaded by the Greeks in 330 BC.

“Does he want to be seen as the new Alexander [the Great] by Iranians?”

“I’m really sorry that we are living in a world where the president of the biggest so-called superpower still doesn’t know that attacking cultural sites is a war crime,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told journalists in Tehran on Sunday.

Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi compared Trump's threats  to the Islamic State group, Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan, calling the US president a “terrorist in a suit”.

'Pretty clear promise' of a war crime

Targeting cultural sites is a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention. The United Nations Security Council also unanimously passed a resolution in 2017 condemning the destruction of heritage sites, such as that carried out by the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria.

At the time, the UN reiterated that actions targeting cultural locations constitute a war crime.

"The deliberate destruction of our common cultural heritage constitutes a war crime and represents an attack on humanity as a whole," said the spokesman for then UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in 2015.

US experts have also stressed the illegal nature of the action threatened by the US president.

Oona Hathaway, an international law professor at Yale and a former national security law official in the Department of Defense's legal office, told AP that Trump's threats amounted to “a pretty clear promise of commission of a war crime”.

Hathaway pointed to legal problems with both of Trump's threats on Saturday – the threat to hit 52 targets in Iran for symbolic reasons and the threat to strike Iranian cultural sites – arguing that both would constitute war crimes.

The first threat would be a war crime because Trump justified it on symbolic grounds of retribution for Iran’s hostage-taking of 52 US citizens 40 years ago, Hathaway explained. The second threat would amount to a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention on the protection of cultural sites, she added.

Hathaway also said the Soleimani killing was itself most likely illegal because the administration had not proven the threat he posed was so “imminent” it required urgent action without consulting Congress.

In interviews with six different US television networks over the weekend, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration would have been “culpably negligent” in its duty to protect the United States if it had not killed Soleimani.

However, he did not provide evidence for his previous claims that Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on Americans, using different language to qualify the magnitude of the threat. Instead of arguing that an attack instigated by Soleimani had been imminent, Pompeo claimed it was “inevitable”.

‘Immoral and un-America’

In his interviews, Washington’s top diplomat tip-toed around questions about Trump's threat to hit cultural sites, insisting that any US military strikes inside Iran would be legal.

“We'll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”

Pompeo refused to give any details on the 52 potential targets that Trump said had been drawn up to represent each and every hostage held in the stand-off at the US embassy in Tehran that began in 1979.

But one former official expressed scepticism that military planners would agree to target cultural sites.

"For what it's worth, I find it hard to believe the Pentagon would provide Trump targeting options that include Iranian cultural sites," Colin Kahl, who was national security adviser to former vice president Joe Biden, wrote on Twitter.

"Trump may not care about the laws of war, but DoD [Department of Defense] planners and lawyers do [...] and targeting cultural sites is war crime," Kahl added.

Others pointed to a flagrant contradiction between Trump’s threats and the US stance on heritage protection.

Nicholas Burns, who served as US ambassador to NATO under former president George W. Bush, said the Trump administration would be guilty of hypocrisy given it was part of international efforts to deter the Islamic State group from destroying countless pre-Islamic artefacts, including the Syrian UNESCO-listed site of Palmyra.

"Donald Trump's threat to destroy Iranian cultural sites would be a war crime under UN Security Council resolution 2347 – supported by the Trump Administration itself in 2017 to warn ISIS+Al Qaeda of similar actions,” said Burns, who is now a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"His threat is immoral and Un-American," added the former ambassador on Twitter.

“The US has taken a leadership role in the protection of antiquities from destruction and illicit trade, particularly in the Middle East,” said Deborah Lehr, the chairwoman and founder of the Washington-based Antiquities Coalition, in an interview with the New York Times. “It would be a shame to see that global good will disappear by the intentional targeting and the destruction of cultural sites,” she added.

Iran is home to two dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the ruins of Persepolis, the 17th-century grand mosque of Isfahan located in a teeming bazaar, and the Golestan Palace in the heart of Tehran. Its cultural sites reflect the expanse of Iran’s history and its contributions to the Golden Age of Islam.

More recently, though, some of the most iconic cultural sites have come to embody the nation’s defiance in its stand-off with the United States: Hundreds of thousands gather at the iconic Azadi Tower in Tehran each year to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution and chant anti-American slogans.