President Donald Trump doubled down Sunday on his belief that the United States military has the right to target Iranian cultural sites, dismissing concerns from the public and even from his own administration that he would be committing a war crime by doing so.
The threat comes as the president rapidly escalates tensions with Iran after authorising a US airstrike that killed a top Iranian general at an airport Friday in Baghdad, Iraq. The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has led to fury from Iran and unhinged threats of war from Trump.
“They’re allowed to kill our people,” Trump told White House reporters Sunday on Air Force One. “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.”
The remarks echo Trump’s comments a day earlier, when he tweeted that he will attack 52 Iranian sites if the country’s government retaliates against the US over Soleimani’s death. The president did not say which places the US might strike, but alleged that some of those sites are cultural sites. The number of sites is the same as the number of Americans held hostage during the Iranian Revolution takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
Many responded to his tweet by reminding him that attacking cultural sites and places of worship are war crimes under international law. The US is a party to the 1954 Hague Convention, a treaty on international law that protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict. Signatories adopted the treaty because “damage to cultural property belonging to any people ever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind.”
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, hit back at Trump by comparing his threats to that of terrorists who have also destroyed cultural sites.
“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,” Zarif tweeted Sunday morning in response to Trump’s initial comments. “Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall.”
The US was one of the biggest critics of the so-called Islamic State’s destruction of historical sites in Mosul, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria, and of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.
Two senior US officials on Sunday told CNN that there was widespread opposition within the Trump administration to targeting cultural sites in Iran if the US retaliates. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told several Sunday shows that the US will launch retaliatory strikes against Iran if attacked, but dodged questions about whether those strikes would hit cultural sites.
“We’ll behave lawfully. We’ll behave inside the system,” Pompeo told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.”
Soleimani led Iran’s elite Quds Force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, organizing Tehran’s proxy high-level armed forces across the Middle East and training Shiite militias in Iraq. He was considered one of the most ruthless and powerful influences in the region, and his assassination could destabilize the Middle East.
Soleimani’s death also marks a massive shift in Washington’s relationship with Iran. The country’s leaders have vowed to retaliate against the U.S. over the assassination, and Iran on Sunday officially pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal that prevented them from amassing enough material to create an atomic weapon. Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and increased sanctions on Tehran, which escalated tensions that eventually resulted in Soleimani’s assassination.
The Trump administration has claimed that the airstrike on Soleimani was necessary because he was planning an imminent attack, though the White House has not made any details about the supposed attack public.
Iraq’s parliament voted Sunday to expel American forces from the country in response to the US airstrike on Soleimani. More than 5,000 US troops are still on the ground in Iraq 17 years after the war began.
Trump said the US will not leave Iraq without being paid for its military investments in the country. He then said that if soldiers do have to leave, the president would put economic sanctions on Baghdad.
“We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” he told reporters Sunday. “If there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq.”