Trump’s Threat To Attack Iranian Cultural Sites Would Probably Be A War Crime
President Trump's threat to attack Iranian cultural sites would most likely constitute a war crime if he actually carried it out.
Over the weekend and in the wake of the assassination of Major General Qassim Suleimani, President Trump announced that any retaliation from Iran would bring massive retaliation from the United States, including attacks on non-military targets that many experts believe could be considered war crimes if they were actually carried out:
President Donald Trump on Saturday warned Iran that if it retaliates for the killing of one of its top leaders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, it will face U.S. attacks on 52 targets, a number he said was symbolic.
“Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have………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,” he said. “The USA wants no more threats!”
Trump’s tweet was vaguely worded, but the United Nations Security Council appears to suggest the targeting of cultural heritage sites is prohibited.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded earlier, accusing Trump of threatening a “war crime” and breaching the norms of international law.
“That is, a big(ly) “no no”,” he said.
Trump added in further tweets that “They attacked us, & we hit back. If they attack again, which I would strongly advise them not to do, we will hit them harder than they have ever been hit before!”
Here is the President’s tweet from Saturday, followed by the response from Iran’s Foreign Minister:
….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
Last night on Air Force One on the way back to Washington from Florida, Trump doubled down on the threat:
President Donald Trump reiterated his threat to target Iranian cultural sites on Sunday evening in a conversation with reporters aboard Air Force One.
“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.
Trump was speaking on his return flight to Washington from Florida where he was staying at Mar-a-Lago for the holidays.
Asked about the prospects for retaliation from Iran for the US strike that killed Iran’s top military commander, Trump said “If it happens it happens.”
“If they do anything there will be major retaliation,” Trump said.
Trump’s comments Sunday night come after two senior US officials described widespread opposition within the administration to targeting cultural sites in Iran should the United States launch retaliatory strikes against Tehran, despite Trump saying a day before that such sites are among dozens the US has identified as potential targets.
“Nothing rallies people like the deliberate destruction of beloved cultural sites. Whether ISIS’s destruction of religious monuments or the burning of the Leuven Library in WWI, history shows targeting locations giving civilization meaning is not only immoral but self-defeating,” one of the officials told CNN.
“The Persian people hold a deeply influential and beautiful history of poetry, logic, art and science. Iran’s leaders do not live up to that history. But America would be better served by leaders who embrace Persian culture, not threaten to destroy it,” they added.
As many experts pointed out in the wake of the first announcement, though, the kind of threatened attack that the President has in mind could be considered a war crime:
After an al-Qaeda affiliated group destroyed ancient religious monuments in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, the International Criminal Court took on a unique criminal case: prosecuting cultural destruction.
Though it generally focuses on human rights violations, the ICC charged the leader of the jihadist group, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, with a war crime for destroying cultural artifacts in Timbuktu.
The case was the first criminal charge of its kind. It “breaks new ground for the protection of humanity’s shared cultural heritage and values,” UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova said at the time. Al-Mahdi eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
That case has renewed relevance amid the standoff between the United States and Iran days after the United States killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in a targeted drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday.
[A]n attack on a cultural site would violate several international treaties and would likely be considered a war crime.
In 2017, for example, a United Nations Security Council resolution “condemns the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, including the destruction of religious sites and artifacts.” That resolution came as a response to the Islamic State’s destruction of a number of major historic and cultural sites in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and 2015.
The UN was clear then that actions targeting cultural locations constituted 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.
Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to NATO, noted the Trump administration supported the 2017 UN resolution condemning destruction of cultural sites.
“His threat is immoral and Un-American,” Burns wrote on Twitter.
It’s also been reported that several of the President’s top advisers have voiced objections to the threat the President made:
Two senior US officials on Sunday described to CNN’s Jim Sciutto widespread opposition within the Trump administration to targeting cultural sites in Iran.”Nothing rallies people like the deliberate destruction of beloved cultural sites. Whether ISIS’s destruction of religious monuments or the burning of the Leuven Library in WWI, history shows targeting locations giving civilization meaning is not only immoral but self-defeating,” one of the officials told CNN.
Another official who formerly worked in both the Trump and Obama administrations told CNN: “As a matter of principle, we as a nation and as a military do not attack the culture sites of any adversary.”
Colin Kahl, former deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, expressed skepticism that there are actually cultural sites on the list of possible retaliatory sites.
“For what it’s worth, I find it hard to believe the Pentagon would provide Trump targeting options that include Iranian cultural sites,” he tweeted. “Trump may not care about the laws of war, but (Department of Defense) planners and lawyers do…and targeting cultural sites is (a) war crime.”
Iran has 22 UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites, including the ancient ruins of Persepolis, the historic Masjed-e Jameh mosque in Esfahan and the lavish Golestan Palace in Tehran.
The fact that the President is making a threat like this is hardly surprising, of course. He’s often used Twitter to “talk tough” when it comes to domestic politics or foreign affairs only to back down when the rubber hits the road. The most famous example of that, of course, came throughout the course of 2017 when he was trading insults and threats with Kim Jong Un only to find himself a year later meeting with that same leader, declaring that the nuclear threat from North Korea was over, and declaring his “love” for someone who only months earlier he was calling a madman.
In that context, it could be that Trump’s tweeting and threats here is just another example of that kind of bluster. This is especially true given the fact that Trump’s military advisers at least are likely to dissuade him from the kind of broad-based attacks that he’s talking about here. Surely, if Iran launches broad-based attacks against American targets we would need to find some way to respond but that doesn’t mean that we would be justified in violating international law in the process of doing so. Indeed, taking such a course of action would most likely strengthen the hand of hardliners in the Iranian government and cause the Iranian people to unite behind the state rather than rise up in rebellion as some Trump Administration officials have claimed.
As an example of the possible impact of the kind of attacks that Trump is threatening, one need only look at today’s reports about the marches that are taking place in Iran in response to Friday’s attack. The New York Times and The Guardian have on the ground reporting on these marches, and there have also been several reports via Twitter from reporters and Iran experts:
The immediate impact of Friday’s assassination, then, has been to unite the Iranian people behind the regime. The kind of attacks that the President is threatening would likely only accelerate that process. This runs counter to the Administration’s claim that Friday’s attack would prove to be popular among Iranians on the streets. It’s had exactly the opposite effect. The Administration ought to keep that in mind in the future, but it probably won’t.