Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday brushed aside critiques that President Donald Trump had called for war crimes by targeting Iranian cultural sites, arguing any U.S. strikes would fall within international law and that it was the Iranian regime actually threatening culture through oppression and murder.
“The real risk to Persian culture” is Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Pompeo told reporters in his first news conference in 2020, citing a litany of Iranian moves to block religious freedom and to support terror networks across the Middle East. “The real risk to Persian culture does not come from the United States of America.”
Pompeo’s remarks came as rising tensions have prompted military leaders to place U.S. forces on high alert for potential Iranian drone strikes in response to last week’s killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s longtime military and intelligence leader.
The Trump-ordered drone strike that killed Soleimani followed U.S. attacks against an Iranian-backed militia, which were in response to the killing of an American contractor.
Trump sparked sharp rebuke from Democrats and Iranians alike after tweeting that the U.S. had prepared for any retaliation by targeting 52 sites for potential strikes, including cultural sites in Iran.
Pompeo tried to tamp down the apparent conflict between Trump’s statements and Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s comment Monday that the U.S. would “follow the laws of armed conflict.”
“Every target that is being reviewed … every effort that will be made will always be conducted within international laws,” Pompeo said. Despite the U.S. being a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention, which bars “any act of hostility” against cultural property, Pompeo claimed the president’s message was consistent with U.S. and international policy.
Trump and the Pentagon say the strike against Soleimani saved American lives by preventing imminent attacks.
Pressed for details on the intelligence leading up to the strike, Pompeo said an Iranian-backed “terror campaign in the region” included “enormous destruction” in Iraq and Syria, denying “soveigntry, independence and freedom” through “Soleimani’s handiwork.”
“If you’re looking for imminence, you need look no further than the days that led up to the strike,” he said, adding that the president was given detailed advice on the move by military, diplomatic and legal advisers. “It was the right decision … that fit perfectly within our strategy of countering a threat from Iran.”
The strike against Soleimani, Pompeo said, was part of a “maximum pressure campaign” that included diplomatic, economic and military components executed “with enormous vigor.”
U.S. forces, intelligence agencies and allies have expected retaliation from Iran, with Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, and Khamenei, vowing revenge on Tuesday. Both noted the response would be proportional, with Zarif saying Iranian people were not “lawless,” like Trump.
Zarif told CNN that Soleimani had been in Iraq on a diplomatic mission before he was killed.
When asked about Zarif’s interview, Pompeo chuckled and said, “Does anybody here believe that? I made you reporters laugh this morning. We know that wasn’t true. He was not there on a diplomatic mission trying to resolve a problem. Zarif is a propagandist of the first order.”
The rising tensions between the nations stem in part from Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran had negotiated with the Obama administration. Trump has placed strong economic sanctions on Iran, and attempts to renegotiate have faltered without a commitment from the U.S. that sanctions might be lifted.
Pompeo said the differences between the Trump and Obama administrations were “not political.”
“They chose to underwrite and appease. We chose to confront and contain. Those are different strategies,” he said. He argued the Trump team would be successful in keeping Americans safe and getting “Iran to act like a normal nation” and suspend nuclear activities.
On Monday, multiple outlets reported that Iranian leaders said they would no longer abide by the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
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