Cultural sites should never be a target of war, Mr Trump

Cultural sites should never be a target of war, Mr Trump
Comment: Trump's threat to target Iranian cultural sites shows complete disdain for Iran's people and their rich heritage, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
09 Jan, 2020
Trump demonstrated he has no serious qualms about destroying Persian heritage [Getty]
During the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's right-hand man, the infamously brutal Sadegh Khalkhali, sought to eradicate Iran's pre-Islamic heritage sites. 

He attempted to bulldoze the majestic ruins of Persepolis but was prevented by people in Shiraz, who bravely placed themselves between him and the ancient Persian capital. Khalkhali was ultimately unable to fulfil his lurid desire to destroy other symbols of Persia's rich ancient past. 

Recent years have seen the Islamic State (IS) wantonly and systematically destroy ancient cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, which former UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova described as "cultural cleansing". Iraqis, Syrians and a disgusted international community rightly condemned these acts.  

When the United States led an enormous air campaign against Saddam Hussein's Iraq to force it out of Kuwait in 1991, many archaeologists and historians expressed fears that Iraq's rich cultural heritage - standing remnants of the "Cradle of Civilization" going back some 5,000 years - would be irreparably destroyed and lost forever.  

"Bombing Iraq is like blowing up the Louvre without hurting the paintings," quipped Alan Sipress in The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time. 

Washington expressed sensitivity on the subject and US officials repeatedly stressed that US warplanes were avoiding targeting cultural or religious sites in the bombing campaign wherever possible. 

"We are very sensitive to cultural and religious sites in the area," General Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the beginning of the bombing campaign. 

US officials acknowledged that accidental destruction of such sites was a possibility despite the use of the then-vaunted precision-guided bombs and missiles. They also denounced Saddam Hussein of endangering Iraq's archaeological treasures by placing military assets alongside them, increasing the risk that they would suffer damage or destruction.  

Purposely targeting any cultural sites would legally violate the 1954 Hague Convention

The then-United States Air Force chief of staff General Michael J. Dugan was dismissed by US Defence Secretary Dick Cheney for, among other things, openly suggesting before the war that the US should potentially strike targets of cultural significance to Iraq.

Dugan had sought to determine "what is unique about Iraqi culture that they put very high value on. What is it that psychologically would make an impact on the population and regime in Iraq?"

This month, the US commander-in-chief threatened something just as heinous - the deliberate destruction of Iranian cultural sites. On 5 January, Donald Trump tweeted that the US will hit "52 Iranian sites … some at a very high level & important to Iran & Iranian culture." 

Cultural sites could range from anything from the aforementioned ruins of Persepolis to mosques, such as the iconic grand mosque in Isfahan or the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, and other civilian targets across that ancient country. 

Some rightly questioned what exactly Trump meant by his comment, noting that cultural sites could be something altogether more contemporary than antiquities, and possibly even mean shopping malls or cinemas, or if he even knows what he is actually advocating.  

Nevertheless, purposely targeting any cultural sites would legally violate the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property as well as a UN Security Council resolution that Trump's own administration supported back in 2017. 

Rather than reflect on the wisdom of such a horrific action the president initially doubled down by insisting that: "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." 

The Pentagon and senior US officials rushed to clarify, contradicting Trump's statement and asserting that the US would not carry out such war crimes. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that the US military would "follow the laws of armed conflict" should it enter conflict with Iran, which unequivocally forbids the deliberate targeting and destruction of cultural sites.

CNN reported that there is widespread opposition in the administration regarding the targeting of such sites, correctly noting that, "Nothing rallies people like the deliberate destruction of beloved cultural sites." 

"The Persian people hold a deeply influential and beautiful history of poetry, logic, art and science," they said, adding that even though Iran's current regime doesn't "live up to that history" America would nevertheless "be better served by leaders who embrace Persian culture, not threaten to destroy it." 

Trump's comments were so insidious and indefensible that even he appeared to backtrack on them, despite previously doubling down, albeit only slightly. 

Trump deserves nothing less than universal condemnation for such heinous criminal intent

On 7 January, the president said, "If that's what the law is - I like to obey the law" but still defended his original sentiments by immediately adding: "But think of it, they kill our people, they blow up our people and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions." 

While elements of the Iranian regime have exhibited their disdain for Persia's ancient past over the years, Khalkhali being the most extreme case, most Iranians revere it. If Trump lives up to his threat to culturally cleanse standing remnants of their proud and ancient cultural heritage, it will fuel anti-US sentiment, even among those Iranians who have little sympathy for their regime.  

Trump has demonstrated that has no serious personal qualms about potentially ordering the US military to undertake the kind of crimes against culture and history endorsed by Khalkhali, and later executed by the Islamic State. 

Unless he makes a complete and unequivocal disavowal of his initial statement Trump deserves nothing less than universal condemnation for such heinous criminal intent.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.