Trump doubles down on striking cultural sites in Iran

Boys listen to a speech next to a defaced poster of US President Donald Trump during a rally in Islamabad to condemn the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, on Jan 5, 2020.
Boys listen to a speech next to a defaced poster of US President Donald Trump during a rally in Islamabad to condemn the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, on Jan 5, 2020.PHOTO: AP

WASHINGTON (AFP, AP) – United States President Donald Trump doubled down on Sunday (Jan 5) on a threat to attack Iranian cultural sites despite accusations that any such strike would amount to a war crime.

After his top diplomat, Mr Mike Pompeo, insisted that any military action would conform to international law, Mr Trump said he would regard cultural sites as fair game if Iran resorted to deadly force against US targets.

“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 site? It doesn’t work that way,” Mr Trump told reporters. “If they do anything there will be major retaliation.”

His comments on his return from a break in Florida followed a welter of criticism over a tweet last Saturday night in which he said sites which were “important to... Iranian culture” were on a list of 52 potential US targets.

Teheran’s foreign minister had reacted to those initial comments by drawing parallels with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group’s destruction of the Middle East’s cultural heritage.

And as Twitter was flooded with photos of revered Iranian landmarks in ancient cities such as Isfahan under the hashtag #IranianCulturalSites, leading US Democrats said the president would be in breach of international protocols if he made good on his threat.

“You are threatening to commit war crimes,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the top Democrats hoping to challenge Mr Trump in November’s election, wrote on Twitter.

“We are not at war with Iran. The American people do not want a war with Iran.”

“Targeting civilians and cultural sites is what terrorists do. It’s a war crime,” added Senator Chris Murphy.

Speaking with reporters on Sunday as he returned to Washington from his holiday stay in Florida, Mr Trump also said the US wouldn’t leave without being paid for its military investments in Iraq over the years – then said if the troops do have to withdraw, he would levy punishing economic penalties on Baghdad. 

“We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” he said.

In a flurry of interviews on the Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Pompeo said the US would not hesitate to hit back hard against Iran’s “kleptocratic regime” if it came under attack, but pledged that any action would be consistent with the rule of law.

Both sides have traded threats since a US drone strike in Iraq last Friday killed Major-General Qassem Soleimani – one of the most important figures in the Iranian government.

“We’ll behave lawfully. We’ll behave inside the system. We always have and we always will,” Mr Pompeo told the ABC network.

“The American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target, and it will be a target designed with a singular mission, of protecting and defending America.”

His comments came after his opposite number in Teheran Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that “targeting cultural sites is a war crime”.

“A reminder to those hallucinating about emulating ISIS war crimes by targeting our cultural heritage: Through millennia of history, barbarians have come and ravaged our cities, razed our monuments and burnt our libraries,” said Foreign Minister Zarif. “Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall.”

Threat ‘Un-American’

Professor Nicholas Burns, who served as US ambassador to Nato under president George W. Bush, said the Trump administration would be guilty of hypocrisy, given it was part of international efforts to deter ISIS from destroying countless pre-Islamic artefacts, including in 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.

“His threat is immoral and Un-American,” said Prof Burns, now at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Others drew comparisons with the Taleban’s 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

Mr Pompeo refused to give details on the 52 potential targets which Mr Trump said had been drawn up to represent each and every hostage held in the stand-off at the US embassy in Teheran four decades ago.

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

“I find it hard to believe the Pentagon would provide Trump targeting options that include Iranian cultural sites,” said Mr Colin Kahl who was national security adviser to former vice-president Joe Biden.

“Trump may not care about the laws of war, but DoD (Department of Defence) planners and lawyers do... and targeting cultural sites is a war crime.”

Mr Trump had issued warnings to Iran earlier by tweet on Sunday afternoon. 

“These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any US person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner,” he wrote. “Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”

That tweet also appeared to serve as a warning to Congress – that Mr Trump would respond quickly to any attack and without first gaining the approval of lawmakers.

Democrats in Congress have complained that Mr Trump’s order to kill Maj-Gen Soleimani took place without first consulting with or informing top lawmakers, noting that Congress still holds sole power to declare war.

Mr Trump did meet the 48-hour deadline required by the War Powers Act to notify Congress of the deadly drone strike, though the document provided last Saturday was entirely classified and no public version was released.

The White House faced a barrage of questions about the killing’s legality. Mr Pompeo said the administration would have been “culpably negligent” in its duty to protect the US if it had not killed Maj-Gen Soleimani, although he did not provide evidence for his previous claims that the man was plotting imminent attacks on Americans. Instead of arguing that an attack had been imminent, he said it was inevitable.

“We watched him continue to actively build out for what was going to be a significant attack – that’s what we believed – and we made the right decision,” he said, adding later: “We continue to prepare for whatever it is the Iranian regime may put in front of us within the next 10 minutes, within the next 10 days, and within the next 10 weeks.”

Congressional Democrats were sceptical.

“I really worry that the actions the president took will get us into what he calls another endless war in the Middle East. He promised we wouldn’t have that,” said Mr Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate’s top Democrat.