After the US assassination of Iranian General Qasim Soleimani, President Donald Trump threatened on Twitter to strike Iranian cultural sites should Iran disproportionately retaliate. The Pentagon has since backtracked from Trump’s threat, but such rhetoric nonetheless sets a dangerous and illegal precedent for American military action devoid of legitimate justification.
The destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime, according to the 1954 Hague Convention and the Department of Defense’s Law of War manual (which mentions cultural property 625 times). Such an action would not only be morally abhorrent but would also parallel the Islamic State’s demolition of cultural heritage sites in the Middle East in 2015, which the international community was quick to condemn. In order to maintain domestic and international support for its operations abroad, the United States cannot destroy, or even threaten to destroy, Iranian cultural heritage sites.
With the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, often referred to as ISIS or ISIL, came widespread destruction in western Iraq and eastern Syria. At first, the militant group’s goal was twofold: to consolidate territorial gains, and to claim leadership of the broader Islamic community. As ISIS gathered momentum, its members destroyed homes, murdered civilians, and wreaked havoc in an effort to establish itself as a functioning quasi-state. In addition to the destruction of civilian areas, ISIS targeted cultural heritage sites in conquered regions, including temples, monasteries, and ancient cities.
Using explosives, bulldozers, and automatic weapons, ISIS reduced centuries-old historic sites to ruin, sometimes in just a few days. A non-exhaustive list of critical sites that ISIS destroyed includes Palmyra, an ancient city home to the 1900-year-old Temple of Baalshamin; Dura-Europos, a Greek settlement that boasted the world’s oldest Christian church; the Assyrian city of Nineveh; and the Mosul Museum and Libraries in Iraq. The devastation is and was staggering.
The Islamic State claimed that the destruction was religiously motivated, citing idol worship, but its members also looted these sites to finance military operations. After the 2015 destruction of Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian capital in Iraq, historians, archeologists, and the general public expressed outrage and disbelief. The United Nations rightly labelled the destruction of Nimrud a “war crime,” and a spokesperson for the Iraqi antiquities ministry said that ISIS had defied “the will of the world and the feelings of humanity” through its condemnable actions.
As a result of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, Trump threatened to destroy sites of significant cultural and historical value, calling them “very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” Specifically, he said that he had identified fifty-two potential targets, one for each of the fifty-two American hostages held by Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Condemnation of Trump’s threat from private citizens, members of government within the United States, and the international community, has been swift. However, even in light of these protestations, Trump doubled down on his threat.
There are twenty-two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iran, and the US Committee of the Blue Shield, which is tasked with protecting cultural sites, estimates that there are between five thousand to ten thousand recommended no-strike sites within the country. Indeed, Iran is geographically a part of the “cradle of civilization,” which refers to the region(s) where human civilization is thought to have first emerged. It is home to thousands of historically and culturally significant sites, important not only to the Iranian people but also to world history. Intentionally targeting these sites would constitute a blunder of extreme proportions; it would explode international tensions and literally erase evidence of humanity’s development.
Most concerning is that Trump has unintentionally echoed ISIS’ strategy for seizing and consolidating power. His threat to target Iranian cultural sites is akin to the indiscriminate destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS in pursuit of twisted strategic and financial priorities on the ground. As a self-professed global leader, the United States has a duty to protect cultural heritage, not of specific nations like Iran, but of the entire world’s communities. American leaders must also recognize the weight of their words and ensure that they answer to a higher moral code than that of an organization like ISIS.
While attempting to stand his ground, Trump said: “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 site? It doesn’t work that way.” Contrary to Trump’s opinion, it does work that way. Threatening war crimes degrades the United States and undermines its place in the world as a beacon of democracy and freedom. Regardless of the actions of other nations, it is critical that the United States only take military action in accordance with international law.
Attacking Iranian cultural sites is making war on history. Under no circumstances should the United States ever even intimate such an egregious act.