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The disturbing history behind Trump’s threat to target Iranian cultural sites

Mourners gather in Tehran on Jan. 6 to pay homage to top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. strike in Baghdad. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Throughout his presidency, President Trump has repeatedly attempted to distinguish between the “wonderful Iranian people” and their “hostile,” “brutal and corrupt” leadership.

But as he suggested the possibility of retaliatory strikes against Iran on Saturday, he resorted to a threat that — in prior conflicts — has deliberately blurred the distinction between countries’ regimes and their people.

By suggesting strikes on “52 Iranian sites,” including some that are important to “the Iranian culture,” Trump threatened a way of waging war that has drawn growing outrage in recent decades, critics argued Monday.

Such attacks have been condemned as “cultural cleansing” by Irina Bokova, a former director general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime,” she told the U.N. Security Council in 2017, adding that “it has become a tactic of war to tear societies over the long term.”

Bokova was primarily referring to the destruction of cultural sites by militant groups at the time, but to some, her words appear eerily relevant for Iran, which has 22 cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the ancient ruins of Persepolis, with its palatial buildings and terraces.

President Trump warned Jan. 5 of a "major retaliation" if Iran were to strike back for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top military commanders. (Video: Reuters)

“A nation that willfully destroys another country’s heritage would be no better than the criminals who have destroyed irreplaceable sites in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in recent years,” Sara C. Bronin, a lawyer and specialist in historic preservation, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in response to Trump’s threats to target cultural sites in Iran.

“Targeting civilians and cultural sites is what terrorists do. It’s a war crime,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In Britain, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson cautioned that “there are international conventions in place which prevent the destruction of cultural heritage.”

In a statement, UNESCO said its director general, Audrey Azoulay, received the Iranian ambassador, Ahmad Jalali, on Monday to discuss the protection of cultural heritage. “Ms. Azoulay stressed the universality of cultural and natural heritage as vectors of peace and dialogue between peoples, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations,” the statement said.

In response to the mounting criticism, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Monday that “Iran has many military, strategic military sites” that could also be considered cultural sites, even though she later clarified that she was not saying Iran was camouflaging military targets within cultural sites.

The United States for decades helped shape what some believed to be a new consensus on the destruction of cultural heritage: that this form of war and destruction is not only a crime against another warring party but also a crime against humanity that endangers civilian lives and dignity.

In March 2017 — only weeks after Trump’s inauguration — the U.N. Security Council, with the United States as a permanent member, unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the “unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, inter alia destruction of religious sites and artefacts” in armed conflicts.

Attacks on cultural heritage sites have been a frequent feature of armed conflicts throughout the history of civilization. In 149 B.C., the Romans began their siege of Carthage, a North African city in what is now Tunisia. The assault ended in the destruction of the city in what some researchers argue was an attempt by the Romans to eradicate their enemies’ culture.

Much later, the 20th century’s brutality reinforced calls for attacks on heritage sites to be more forcefully condemned. World War II not only put a spotlight on the Nazis’ attempts to attack opponents’ dignity and national identity; it also raised questions about some Allied attacks. The Allied forces’ bombardment of the eastern German city of Dresden — which came late in the war and surprised many who had not previously perceived the historic city to be a key military target — triggered a debate that continues to this day.

The international community appeared determined to take international treaties more seriously going forward.

According to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, warring parties should take all possible steps “to protect cultural property,” which includes “monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular,” among other examples. (Under certain circumstances, the convention allows for cultural property’s special protection to be withdrawn in case of “unavoidable military necessity.”)

Those commitments were also codified in the differently worded Geneva Conventions, which protect “historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples” from acts of hostility.

In the 1990s, the wars that broke up Yugoslavia became a brutal reminder of why such treaties had been drafted — and how they were ignored. Starting in 1991, Yugoslav People’s Army forces besieged the historic city of Dubrovnik in Croatia, leading to the destruction of parts of its center. In the city of Sarajevo, in Bosnia, the Vijećnica city hall was set on fire in 1992, destroying its sizable library.

In the aftermath, former prosecutors and researchers with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia assessed more broadly that during conflicts, “it is increasingly evident that cultural property is not simply at risk from incidental harm, but is being intentionally attacked as part of cultural cleansing campaigns.”

They specifically referred to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq that were underway by the time of their assessment’s publication in 2016. Militants in those countries — including Islamic State fighters — had waged a campaign against historic cultural artifacts and buildings that reverberated across the region.

As a result, the international community moved closer to ostracizing such acts.

In 2016, North African militant Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was convicted by the International Criminal Court of “intentionally directing attacks against historic monuments and/or buildings dedicated to religion” in the ICC’s first such trial, focusing on the destruction or damaging of cultural property. Mahdi was sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in attacking nine mausoleums and one mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012.

The ICC’s message to the world at the time appeared to be: Attacks on cultural heritage will no longer go unpunished.

But with a U.S. president now threatening to attack cultural sites in Iran, the narrative that the United States helped to advance now appears in doubt.

“They’re allowed to kill our people,” Trump told reporters Sunday, attempting to justify his threat. “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 site? It doesn’t work that way.”

U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question or read previous Q&As with Post reporters.