Amid Trump Iran threat, UNESCO reminds world that US signed treaty to not harm cultural sites

The United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO called on governments to remember that cultural sites are not targets following U.S. President Donald Trump’s weekend tweets on targeting Iranian sites. 

UNESCO reinforced that the U.S. and Iran ratified the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Reuters reported

The issue began when Trump tweeted Saturday evening that if Iran attacks any American assets to avenge the killing of a top Iranian general, the U.S. has 52 targets across the Islamic Republic that “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD."

Some are “important to Iran & Iranian culture,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

That vague comment drew immediate anger across Iran.

FILE: The Arg was built during the reign of Tahmasb I (r. 1524-1576) of the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736), and was later renovated by Karim Khan Zand (r. 1750-1779). Agha Mohamd Khan Qajar (1742-1797) chose Tehran as his capital. The Arg became the sit

“I'm not sure when he says cultural sites, does he for example mean our Persepolis?” said Mehrdad Khadir, a cultural and political analyst in Tehran, referring to the ancient ruins invaded by the Greeks in 330 B.C. “Does he want to be seen as the new Alexander (the Great) by Iranians?”

If the U.S. were to directly bomb Iran, it could spark a war and lead to violence across the region, potentially drawing other countries into a global conflict.

Trump insisted Sunday that Iranian cultural sites were fair game for the U.S. military, dismissing concerns within his own administration that doing so could constitute a war crime under international law. 

Iran's earliest traces of human history reach as far back as 100,000 B.C. Its historic monuments preserve the legacy of a civilization that has kept its Persian identity throughout the tides of foreign conquests, weaving in influences from Turkic, South Asian and Arab cultures, and the footprints of Alexander the Great and later Islam.

“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 in response Sunday. “Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall.”

Trump's threat also raised questions about the legality of such an attack on a heritage of global importance.

In fact, targeting cultural sites is a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention. The United Nations Security Council also passed unanimously a resolution in 2017 condemning the destruction of heritage sites. Attacks by the Islamic State group and other armed factions in Syria and Iraq prompted that vote.

“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.

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

A number of officials and organizations, including Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and international rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, also warned that such action would violate international law, the Hill reported

“President Trump should publicly reverse his threats against Iran’s cultural property and make clear that he will not authorize nor order war crimes," Andrea Prasow, acting Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, according to the report. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put some distance between London and Washington over Trump’s threat. “There are international conventions in place that prevent the destruction of cultural heritage," said James Slack, Johnson’s official spokesman, on Monday.

Trump's tweet also caused concern in Washington. One U.S. national security official said Trump’s threat to target Iranian cultural sites had caught many in his administration off guard and prompted calls for others in his government, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to clarify the matter. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly to the issue, called such a clarification necessary to affirm that the U.S. military would not intentionally commit war crimes.

Among Iranians, pride in the country’s culture supersedes the divisive and nationalistic fervor whipped up by current politics that has put a chasm between hard-liners in Tehran and the diaspora of Iranians in the West.

Tensions sharply escalated between Washington and Tehran following America's targeted killing early Friday in Iraq of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's powerful Quds Force. The U.S. Defense Department said it killed Soleimani because he was developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in the Middle East.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “harsh retaliation," calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance” against Western hegemony.

Zarif also wrote on Twitter Sunday that after committing “grave breaches” in killing Soleimani, Trump is now threatening a “WAR CRIME” in targeting cultural sites.

Trump, while speaking with reporters Sunday as he returned to Washington from his holiday stay in Florida, doubled down on his threat despite international prohibitions.

“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.

Long before the 1979 Islamic Revolution birthed Iran’s Shiite theocracy, the land historically known as Persia was the birthplace of towering Islamic figures like the mystic poet Rumi and the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. It’s also home to the tombs of great scholars, including Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna and the father of modern medicine.

Iran is home to two dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Persepolis with its ancient ruins that date back to 518 B.C., the 17th century grand mosque of Isfahan located in a teeming bazaar, and the Golestan Palace in the heart of Tehran, where the last shah to rule Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was crowned in 1967.

The country’s cultural sites reflect the expanse of Iran’s history: Geological and archaeological sites date back several thousand years, while 1,000-year-old sites reflect Iran’s contributions to the Golden Age of Islam. In Qom, the Feizeh Religious Science School and a shrine of a Shiite saint, Masoumeh, attract Muslim pilgrims from around the world, reinforcing Iran’s preeminent place among Shiite clerics, theologians and scholars.

More recently, though, some of the most iconic cultural sites have come to embody the nation’s defiance in the face of the United States. For example, the iconic Azadi Tower, or Freedom Tower, with its famed white marble arch, is where hundreds of thousands gather in Tehran each year and chant slogans against the U.S. to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution.

On Monday, the famed Musalla mosque in Tehran will be used by mourners to grieve Iran’s fallen commander. Soleimani’s body will lie in state there before his burial in the city of Kerman on Tuesday.

If culturally prominent sites were targeted, the Trump administration might argue they were being used to covertly stockpile weapons that could target U.S. interests and personnel in the region.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard has in the past deployed HAWK anti-aircraft missiles around the sprawling tomb complex of Ruhollah Khomeini where the Islamic Republic's late supreme leader is buried. The complex was attacked by Islamic State militants in 2017.

Trump also warned Iraq that he would levy punishing sanctions if it expelled American troops in retaliation for a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian official.

More than 5,000 American troops are still on the ground in Iraq 17 years after the U.S. invasion. Iraq’s parliament voted Sunday in favor of a nonbinding resolution calling for the expulsion of the American forces.

Trump said the U.S. 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 hit Baghdad with economic penalties.

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

He added: “We’re not leaving until they pay us back for it.”

Pompeo said the U.S. military may well strike more Iranian leaders if the Islamic Republic retaliates, but tip-toed around questions about Trump’s threat to attack Iranian cultural sites.

Pompeo said only that any U.S. military strikes inside Iran would be legal.

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

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper appeared to also contradict the president on Monday, asserting that the U.S. would not target Iranian cultural sites amid the rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran, CNN reported

“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper told CNN.  

When asked if his statement meant not targeting Iranian cultural sites, Esper responded, “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”  

"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," a senior U.S. official told CNN.

"Consistent with laws and norms of armed conflict, we would respect Iranian culture," a second senior U.S. official told the network.

"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," both the officials said. 

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

The president’s threats to Iran did little to quell Tehran’s furor over the death of Soleimani. Iranian state television reported that the country would no longer abide by any limits of the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the United States and other world powers. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 and stepped up economic sanctions on Tehran — actions that accelerated a cycle of hostilities leading to the last week’s killing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.