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|Pentagon rules out striking Iranian cultural sites, contradicting Trump|
The "Si-o-Se Pol" bridge (33 Arches bridge) over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan. ATTA KENARE / AFP.
by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman
WASHINGTON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sought to douse an international outcry Monday by ruling out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran escalates further, despite President Donald Trumps threat to destroy some of the countrys treasured icons.
Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president, who insisted such places would be legitimate targets. Trumps threats generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting U.S. military leaders who have made a career of upholding the laws of war.
We will follow the laws of armed conflict, Esper said at a news briefing at the Pentagon when asked if cultural sites would be targeted as the president had suggested over the weekend. When a reporter asked if that meant no because the laws of war prohibit targeting cultural sites, Esper agreed. Thats the laws of armed conflict.
The furor was a classic controversy of Trumps creation, the apparent result of an impulsive threat and his refusal to back down in the face of criticism. When Trump declared Saturday that the United States had identified 52 potential targets in Iran if it retaliates for the American drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, none of those targets qualified as cultural sites, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified correcting the president.
Nonetheless, when Trump casually said on Twitter that they included sites very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, the resulting uproar only got his back up. Rather than simply say that cultural sites were not actually being targeted, the official said, he decided to double down the next day with reporters flying with him on Air Force One, scoffing at the idea that Iran could kill our people while were not allowed to touch their cultural site, saying, It doesnt work that way.
The comments drew protests from Iran and other American adversaries who said they showed that Trump is the aggressor and not just against Irans government but against its people, its history and its very nationhood. Even some of Americas allies weighed in, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain breaking with Trump by issuing a statement through an aide warning against targeting antiquities.
Military leaders were left in the awkward position of trying to reaffirm their commitment to generations of war-fighting rules without angering a volatile commander in chief by contradicting him. Trumps remarks unsettled even some of his allies, who considered them an unnecessary distraction at a time when the president should be focusing attention on Irans misdeeds rather than promising some of his own.
Were not at war with the culture of the Iranian people, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the presidents staunchest supporters in Congress, said Monday. Were in a conflict with the theology, the ayatollah and his way of doing business.
Graham, a retired military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, said he delivered that message to Trump in a telephone call Monday. I think the president saying we will hit you hard is the right message, he said. Cultural sites is not hitting them hard; its creating more problems. Were trying to show solidarity with the Iranian people.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Trumps threats would only encourage despots of the world to target antiquities themselves.
America is better than that, and President Trump is flat-out wrong to threaten attacks on historic places of cultural heritage, said Reed, a former platoon leader in the Armys 82nd Airborne Division. Destroying some of these culturally significant Iranian sites wouldnt be seen as just an attack against the regime in Tehran, it could be construed as an attack on history and humanity.
Iran, home to one of humanitys most storied ancient civilizations, has 22 cultural sites designated on the World Heritage List by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, including the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire later conquered by Alexander the Great. Others include Tchogha Zanbil, the remnants of the holy city of the Kingdom of Elam, and a series of Persian gardens that have their roots in the times of Cyrus the Great.
The United States is a signatory to a 1954 international agreement to protect cultural property in armed conflict and has been a leader in condemning rogue nations and groups that destroy antiquities, including the Islamic States destruction of sites in Mosul, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria, and the Talibans demolition of the famed Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.
Experts said that what Trump described would likewise violate international law. We and others accused ISIS of war crimes when they did this, said Jeh C. Johnson, a former secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama, using another name for the Islamic State. Certainly, in aggravated circumstances, it should be considered a war crime.
Johnson, who previously served as the top lawyer at the Pentagon, and others said there could be situations that are murkier, if the actual cultural value was less clear or it was being used as a military facility. Still, Johnson said, my guess is his national security lawyers did not vet that tweet.
Indeed, the presidents advisers ever since have sought to deny that he was actually making a threat even though his initial tweet said the sites including those of cultural importance WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD if Iran responded to Soleimanis killing.
President Trump didnt say hed go after a cultural site, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the next day on Fox News. Read what he said very closely.
But just hours later, Trump made very clear that he thought cultural sites were in fact legitimate targets. Theyre allowed to kill our people, he told the reporters on Air Force One as he flew back to Washington from his winter holiday in Florida. Theyre allowed to torture and maim our people. Theyre allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And were not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesnt work that way.
By Monday, the White House was again denying that Trump actually made a threat. He didnt say hes targeting cultural sites, Kellyanne Conway, the presidents counselor, told reporters. He said that he was openly asking the question why in the world theyre allowed to maim people, put out roadside bombs, kill our people, torture our people.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
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