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Pentagon says will not violate law of war amid alarm over Trump’s threat

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper delivers a speech during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 18, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has strongly indicated that the U.S. military will not fire on Iranian cultural sites, targets that President Donald Trump had threatened to strike.

“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper said during a briefing at the Pentagon. When asked if that ruled out targeting cultural sites, Esper said pointedly, “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

Trump’s suggestion that the United States could target Iranian cultural sites has sparked alarm in Iran and beyond, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) saying such action would be a war crime.

A UN Security Council resolution supported by the Trump administration in 2017 considers targeting cultural sites a war crime. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property also considers such actions a war crime.

Amid escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington following a U.S. air strike that killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani last week, Trump tweeted on January 4 that the United States had included sites “important to Iran & Iranian culture” in its list of 52 targets for attack should Tehran retaliate against Soleimani’s killing.

Despite criticism from U.S. politicians and others, Trump on January 5 stood by his remarks, saying: “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.”

In a statement, HRW said that the laws of war “prohibit deliberate attacks on civilian objects not being used for military purposes.”

The New York-based human rights watchdog cited Article 53 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions as specifically prohibiting any acts of hostility against cultural objects.

Andrea Prasow, acting Washington director at HRW, urged Trump to “publicly reverse his threats against Iran”s cultural property and make clear that he will not authorize nor order war crimes.”

In Paris, the head of the UN’s cultural agency noted that both the United States and Iran had ratified treaties protecting cultural sites during war.

Meeting with the Iranian ambassador to the organization, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay stressed “the universality of cultural and natural heritage as vectors of peace and dialogue between peoples, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations.”

Iran is home to 22 cultural sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, including Persepolis, with its ancient ruins that date back to 518 BC, the 17th-century grand mosque of Isfahan, and the Golestan Palace in Tehran.