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Pompeo calls ayatollah 'the real risk' to Iran's culture

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By Dartunorro Clark  with NBC News Politics
Image: Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Holds Media Briefing At State Departm
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department on Jan. 7, 2020.   -   Copyright  Win McNamee Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday in response to a question about President Donald Trump's threat to attack Iranian heritage sites that Tehran's actions have done more to harm that country's culture than anything the United States has done.

"Let me tell you who has done damage to the Persian culture. It's not the United States of America, it's the ayatollah," Pompeo said at a State Department press conference, referring to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "If you want to look at who has denied religious freedom. ... Persian culture is rich and steeped in history and intellect, and they've denied the capacity for that culture to continue."

"The real risk to Persian culture does not come from the United States of America," Pompeo added.

In remarks to reporters on Air Force One on Sunday night, Trump suggested the United States could attack Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliates for thekilling of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of the country's top military and intelligence officials.

"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 president's comments came after he posted a vaguely worded tweet that said the United States would attack 52 Iranian sites following any retaliation from Tehran. International laws prohibit attacks on cultural sites.

In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the suggestion that the U.S. military would target cultural sites a "war crime" in his own Twitter response on Sunday.

At Monday's press conference, Pompeo said that the administration will work within international law when responding to a potential attack from Iran.

"Every action we take will be consistent with the international rule of law, and the American people can rest assured that that's the case," he said.