President Donald Trump has threatened to "hit" Iranian cultural sites if the country retaliates against the United States for its assassination of one of their military leaders, General Qasem Soleimani.
In a series of tweets on Saturday, Trump said that "Iran is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets as revenge for our ridding the world of their terrorist leader" and warned that "if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have 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."
He added, "And those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!"
Later that day Trump retweeted a post by Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who defended Trump's assassination of Soleimani. The president added, "They attacked us, & we hit back. If they attack again, which I would strongly advise them not to do, we will hit them harder than they have ever been hit before!" On Sunday he doubled down on that tweet, writing that "the United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!"
Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, responded to Trump's tweets on Sunday by claiming that the president would commit a war crime if he followed through on them.
"Targeting cultural sites is a WAR CRIME," Zarif tweeted. He later added, "Those masquerading as diplomats and those who shamelessly sat to identify Iranian cultural & civilian targets should not even bother to open a law dictionary. Jus cogens refers to peremptory norms of international law, i.e. international red lines. That is, a big(ly) 'no no'."
Zarif elaborated on Sunday by tweeting, "A reminder to those hallucinating about emulating ISIS war crimes by targeting our cultural heritage: Through MILLENNIA of history, barbarians have come and ravaged our cities, razed our monuments and burnt our libraries. Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall."
Targeting sites of historical and cultural significance is considered a war crime according to the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural sites. In 2017 the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the destruction of heritage sites.
"The danger that we face is twofold," Michael Desch, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University who specializes in American foreign policy and American national security policy and directs the Notre Dame International Security Center, told Salon on Sunday. "One is that any response, particularly against non-military sites or sites where there's a high likelihood of collateral damage (particularly among civilians), could be self-defeating in the sense that a lot of the rest of the world would regard it as overkill."
After describing how his second point is based on the premise that containing Iranian influence in the greater Middle East is a valid American foreign policy objective, Desch added that "the United States has had a tendency, it seems to me, to take steps that have had almost exactly the opposite effect. The most dramatic manifestation of that was the overthrow Saddam Hussein in March 2003, and the only party that came out of that better off as a result of it was Iran." Noting Iraq's decision to respond to Soleimani's assassination by moving toward demanding that America completely liquidate its military presence in their country — a move that benefits Iran — Desch said that targeting Iranian cultural sites would be one of many options that "have in my view the high likelihood of being counterproductive, in the same way that many of the other things that we've done in Iraq since 2003 have been as well."