Following a US drone strike on a Baghdad airport that killed a top Iranian commander on Friday, January 3, President Donald Trump has threatened fifty-two targets including cultural sites in an attempt to warn Iran against retaliating against Americans. If carried out, the destruction of heritage sites could be considered a war crime under international law. Trump said that he gave the order for the strike to prevent “imminent and sinister attacks” that the general was allegedly plotting against the US. He also cited a recent attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad by members of an Iran-backed militia.

While aboard Air Force One on Sunday night, Trump defended a tweet he wrote the day before, which said that the fifty-two sites are a “very high level & important to Iran & Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats.” He also claimed that the number was symbolic since it represents the fifty-two Americans that were held hostage by Iran for 444 days between November 4, 1979 and January 20, 1981.

Despite a fierce backlash from politicians, human rights advocates, and museum directors and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attempt to downplay the threat to Iranian culture—he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC that any military action taken by the US would be lawful and would be “designed with a singular mission, of protecting and defending America”—Trump reiterated his intent to strike culture sites. He told reporters that if Iran is “allowed to torture and maim our people” and to “use roadside bombs and blow up our people” then cultural sites will not be spared in future military engagements.

Among the lawmakers speaking out against Trump’s remarks are Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. The senator from Massachusetts tweeted that Trump was “threatening to commit war crimes.” “We are not at war with Iran,” she wrote. “The American People do not want a war with Iran. This is a democracy. You do not get to start a war with Iran, and your threats put our troops and diplomats at greater risk. Stop.”

While Trump declared in a televised address to the nation that the action was taken to prevent a war, not to start one, Iran declared the US’s action “state terrorism” and an “unlawful criminal act” in a letter to the United Nations. Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, also told Erin Burnett of CNN in an interview for Out Front that “there will be revenge.” 

As the fallout over the death of Major General Qassim Suleimani continues to grow, Iran said it would no longer comply with the restrictions imposed upon it by the 2015 nuclear deal, escalating the already high tensions between the country and the US. A joint statement released by France, Germany, and the UK calls for the US and Iran to “exercise utmost restraint and responsibility.” It also urges Iran to “reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA”—the 159-page Joint Comprehensive Action Plan which outlines the nuclear deal. 

Angered by America’s decision to take advantage of its sovereignty, Iraq has also voted to expel some five thousand American troops from its soil, prompting Trump to threaten to impose sanctions. Trump also said that the US won’t leave until it is compensated for the cost of building an air base in the country. 

In response, to Trump’s threats Thomas Campbell, the director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the former head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: “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.”




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