US President Donald Trump’s decision to include cultural sites in a list of fifty-two targets he threatened to attack if Iran retaliates over the killing of top military leader Major General Qassim Suleimani has sparked international outrage. In an attempt to quell the backlash, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper acknowledged that any action carried out against historic sites would constitute a war crime under international law since they are areas with no military value at a press conference held at the Pentagon on Monday. He said: “We will follow the laws of armed conflict” in future military engagements.
Following the death of Suleimani, who was killed in an American drone strike at an airport in Baghdad on Friday, January 3, the hostility between the United States and Iran has continued to escalate. Iran declared Trump’s order to strike an act of “state terrorism” and has vowed to retaliate. According to the New York Times, its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the country’s National Security Council that any move against the US must be a “direct and proportional attack on American interests.” Iran is also now refusing to abide by the limitations on its nuclear program that were set in the 2015 nuclear deal under former president Barack Obama.
While several American politicians, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, have tried to soften Trump’s initial remarks about destroying Iran’s cultural treasures, which were made on Saturday, he reiterated them on Sunday, telling reporters: “[Iranians] are 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.”
Museum directors, arts organizations, scholars, curators, and other arts professionals added their voices to the growing number of politicians and human rights advocates who have decried Trump’s threats to Iran’s cultural heritage. Thomas Campbell, the director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the former head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote on Instagram: “Normally speaking, museum directors remain behind the scenes, orchestrating thoughtful dialogues between mutually respectful colleagues about topical cultural affairs. But when the President of the United States inverts every value system our country previously stood for, and calls for destructive attacks against cultural sites in one of the oldest civilizations of the world, you have to speak out vehemently and urgently.”
Tristram Hunt, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, tweeted: “Just as the bulldozing of Palmyra & significant heritage sites by ISIS was abhorrent, so US Gov threat to destroy important cultural sites in Iran must be condemned. This is a worrying step towards the normalisation of cultural destruction as a war aim.” The World Monuments Fund also cited the intentional destruction of sites in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, and Yemen, in a statement speaking out against the threats. “In each case we have seen how the obliteration of such important places of meaning irrevocably harms not only a country’s people, but humanity in general. . . .We cannot continue to let political differences threaten one of the few things that serve to unite us allour shared global heritage.”
To remind Trump that any such action against culture is illegal, the Association of Art Museum Curators said: “The deliberate targeting of art, architectural, archaeological and cultural sites is not only deplorable, it is also against international treaties to which the United States Government is a signatory, including the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347 (2017), and 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.”
Other organizations that have denounced attacking historic sites are the Archaeological Institute of America, the Coalition of American Heritage, the Modern Language Association, and the Penn Cultural Heritage Center. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) also urged both the United States and Iran not to violate the 1972 convention that they signed to protect the cultural and national heritage of other states in the event of armed conflict. Currently, Iran has twenty-two cultural sites on the World Heritage List, which is maintained by UNESCO.
The sites include the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, which dates back to 515 BCE; Tchogha Zanbil, the remnants of the holy city of the Kingdom of Elam; Naqsh-e Jahan Square, one of the largest city squares in the world; the Golestan Palace, a complex of royal buildings in Tehran that served as the official residence of the Qajar dynasty; Arg-e Bam citadel, a monumental adobe; the Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini, which houses the tombs of the founder of the Islamic Republic; and a series of Persian gardens that have their roots in the times of Cyrus the Great.