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UNESCO warns Trump against targeting Iranian cultural sites

Donald Trump had threatened to target cultural sites in Iran.

The ancient ruins at Persepolis are among some of the most treasured sites in Iran.
The ancient ruins at Persepolis are among some of the most treasured sites in Iran.
Image: Shutterstock/Rizd

Updated Jan 6th 2020, 3:30 PM

UNESCO HAS SAID that both the US and Iran must protect cultural sites after President Donald Trump threatened to target cultural locations and sites in the country. 

Trump had insisted that Iranian cultural sites are fair game for the US military, dismissing concerns within his own administration that doing so could constitute a war crime under international law.

This afternoon, the UN’s cultural agency said that both Iran and the United States must observe a convention obliging states to preserve cultural sites. 

UNESCO director general Audrey Azoulay said at a meeting with the Iranian ambassador to the organisation that both Tehran and Washington had signed a 1972 convention obliging states not to undertake “any deliberate measures which might damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage” of other states.

Trump also warned Iraq he would levy punishing sanctions if it expelled American troops in retaliation for a US airstrike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian official.

Trump’s comments came amid escalating tensions in the Middle East following the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force.

Iran has vowed to retaliate and Iraq’s parliament responded by voting on Sunday to oust US troops based in the country.

Today, a huge crowd of mourners gathered in Tehran to attend the funeral of Soleimani. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President of France Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have also called for working towards an urgent easing of tensions in the Persian Gulf.

The three leaders released a statement saying while they were concerned by the “negative” role Iran has played in the region – including through forces directed by General Qassem Soleimani – there was now “an urgent need for de-escalation”.

“We call on all parties to exercise utmost restraint and responsibility. The current cycle of violence in Iraq must be stopped,” the joint statement, released late on Sunday night, said.

“We specifically call on Iran to refrain from further violent action or proliferation, and urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal).” 

Trump first raised the prospect of targeting Iranian cultural sites on Saturday in a tweet. Speaking with reporters as he flew back to Washington from his holiday stay in Florida yesterday he doubled down, despite international prohibitions.

“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,” Trump said.

The killing of General Soleimani sparked outrage in the Middle East, including in Iraq, where more than 5,000 American troops are still on the ground 17 years after the US invasion.

Iraq’s parliament voted yesterday in favour of a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of the American forces.

embedded249376955 Mourners of Qassem Soleimani yesterday in Iran. Source: PA

Trump said the US would not leave without being paid for its military investments in Iraq over the years — then said if the troops do have to withdraw, he would hit Baghdad with economic penalties.

“We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” he said.

“If there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq.”

He added: “We’re not leaving until they pay us back for it.”

The administration has scrambled to contend with the backlash to the killing of General Soleimani. Though he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, the American strike marked a stark escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US military may well strike more Iranian leaders if the Islamic Republic retaliates.

He tip-toed around questions about Trump’s threat to attack Iranian cultural sites, a military action that likely would be illegal under the laws of armed conflict and the UN charter.

Pompeo said any US military strikes inside Iran would be legal.

“We’ll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”

One US national security official said the president had caught many in the administration off guard and prompted internal calls for others in the government, including Pompeo, to clarify the matter.

Oona Hathaway, an international law professor at Yale and a former national security law official in the Defence Department’s legal office, said Trump’s threat amounted to “a pretty clear promise of commission of a war crime”.

The administration also pushed back yesterday on questions about the legality of the strike on General Soleimani.

Pompeo said the administration would have been “culpably negligent” in its duty to protect the United States if it had not killed him.

He did not provide evidence for his previous claims that General Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on Americans. Instead of arguing an attack had been imminent, he said it was inevitable.

“We watched him continue to actively build out for what was going to be a significant attack – that’s what we believed – and we made the right decision,” he said.

“We continue to prepare for whatever it is the Iranian regime may put in front of us within the next 10 minutes, within the next 10 days, and within the next 10 weeks.” 

With reporting from AFP

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