Donald Trump has doubled down on his claim that it would be acceptable for American forces to retaliate against any attack by Tehran by targeting Iranian cultural sites, an act which some experts believe would constitute a war crime under US and international law.
On Saturday, Mr Trump responded to Iranian promises of retaliation for his ordering of the targeted killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani with a tweet threatening to attack 52 separate targets, including some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture”.
While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a series of Sunday morning television appearances to claim that Mr Trump “didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site,” the president reiterated his desire to do just that Sunday evening while speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One.
After inviting reporters to his cabin while flying back to Washington from a two-week holiday in Florida, Mr Trump opined that it would be unfair for US forces to not be permitted to target Iranian cultural sites because of the tactics used by many of the insurgent groups the US has fought since it invaded Iraq in 2003.
“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,” Mr Trump said as he sat behind the desk in his airborne office.
But under both international and American law, there are many experts who insist it does work that way.
Prohibitions against destruction of cultural heritage sites in international date back to the 1907 Hague Convention, which required parties to an armed conflict to take “all necessary steps” for the protection of “buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected”.
Additionally, Protocol I of the 1949 Geneva Convention is clear in its prohibition of “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples”. The US is a party to both of those treaties.
Jill Goldenziel, an international law professor at Marine Corps University, tweeted: “Attacking cultural sites is a war crime unless they’re being used for military purposes.”
The US has also has been a party to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict since 2009, which provides for further prohibitions against destruction of cultural artefacts and sites during war or occupation.
Although the US helped draft the treaty and initially signed it in 1954, Cold War-era concerns kept it from being submitted to the senate for ratification until 1999, when then-president Bill Clinton did so at the unanimous recommendation of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ironically, the impetus for the senate’s final ratification of the treaty in September 2008 was a wave of public attention following the looting of Iraq’s museums after the 2003 US invasion.
It is unlikely that US forces would obey an order to target cultural sites within Iran, since following such an order would go against clear instructions in the US Defence Department’s Law of War Manual, which states that “cultural property, the areas immediately surrounding it, and appliances in use for its protection should be safeguarded and respected”.
But since he first entered politics in 2015, Mr Trump has often derided the very idea of war crimes as a manifestation of political correctness. He has often suggested that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program – widely condemned – should be restarted, and he has suggested that killing Islamic State fighters’ family members would be an effective anti-terrorism strategy.
Mr Trump has also been an advocate for American soldiers accused of war crimes, and in November pardoned three US service members who were either convicted of war crimes charges or were awaiting trial.
One such service member, retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, was spotted at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club last month, where he reportedly thanked Mr Trump for his support. Mr Gallagher has offered to campaign for Mr Trump’s re-election.