The Pentagon has distanced itself from U.S. President Donald Trump's threat to target Iranian cultural sites.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday the U.S. will "follow the laws of armed conflict." When asked if that ruled out targeting cultural sites, Esper said pointedly: "That's the laws of armed conflict."
Trump has defended his threat to target Iranian cultural sites if the country were to follow through with retaliation measures for the killing of commander Qassem Soleimani.
Speaking with reporters Sunday as he returned to Washington from his holiday stay in Florida, 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 told reporters.
Trump's warnings rattled some administration officials. One U.S. 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. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly to the issue, said clarification was necessary to affirm that the U.S. military would not intentionally commit war crimes.
Earlier on Sunday, Iran had warned Trump that bombing cultural heritage "is a war crime" after he threatened to attack 52 Iranian sites if there were any reprisals over the killing of commander Qassem Soleimani.
It came as tens of thousands of mourners took to the streets of Iran to see a coffin carrying the general’s remains paraded through two Iranian cities as part of a grand funeral procession across the Islamic Republic.
Trump tweeted from his Mar-a-Lago golf resort in Florida that the US had already “targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”
Iran's cultural heritage
Trump did not identify the targets but added that they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
Iran, home to 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites, has in the past reportedly guarded the sprawling tomb complex of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with surface-to-air missiles.
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted back on Sunday that Trump had already "committed grave breaches of (international) law" in killing Soleimani in the first place and that "targeting cultural sites is a war crime".
His colleague, telecoms minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, says Trump hated culture — “like ISIS, like Hitler, like Genghis (Khan)" — adding: “Trump is a terrorist in a suit.”
The 1954 Hague Convention, of which the US is a party, bars any military from “direct hostilities against cultural property."
Oona Hathaway, an international law professor at Yale and a former national security law official in the Defense Department's legal office, said Trump's threat amounted to ``a pretty clear promise of commission of a war crime.''
However, such sites can be targeted if they have been re-purposed and turned into a legitimate “military objective," according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The UN Security Council passed unanimously a resolution in 2017 condemning the destruction of heritage sites, prompted by the actions of ISIS and other armed factions in Syria and Iraq.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington’s strategy in countering Iran is to target the country's "actual decision-makers” rather than to focus on proxy forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
He said that, if the US military attacked Iran in response to Iranian retaliation for the Soleimani killing, such strikes would be legal under the laws of armed conflict.
“We'll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”
He added: “Every target that we strike will be a lawful target, and it will be a target designed with a singular mission — defending and protecting America.”
He did not explicitly contradict Trump on targeting cultural sites, but said Trump “was getting to this point” in his tweet.