During an Oval Office meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Trump said the administration is “supposed to be very careful with [Iran’s] cultural heritage.”
“And you know what, if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law,” he said. “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. But I’m OK with it.”
Trump ordered the drone strike that killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, last week after a series of escalating confrontations with Tehran and its proxy forces in the region.
Trump threatened to target Iranian cultural sites after Iran vowed to retaliate for Soleimani’s death. In a tweet Sunday, he said the United States targeted 52 sites, “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”
The president repeated the threat Sunday on Air Force One, saying, “They’re allowed to kill our people, they’re allowed to torture and maim our people … and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”
The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict makes it a war crime to target cultural sites.
In Iran, there are two dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 22 of them cultural ones. The sites represent religious, economic, architectural and social achievements and history throughout Iran.
Even as he backed off the prospect of targeting cultural sites, Trump reiterated a threat of a strong response if Iran retaliates over Soleimani’s death.
“I will say this: If Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly,” he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper insisted the administration would follow international laws on armed conflict.
The administration accused Soleimani in the death of hundreds of U.S. troops and said he planned an imminent attack against U.S. forces. Pompeo and Esper declined to elaborate on details of the threat.
Pompeo and other Trump administration officials are scheduled to brief members of Congress on the Soleimani attack Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined other Republicans in distancing himself from Trump’s threats to attack Iranian cultural sites, saying it was “not appropriate.”
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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the president’s closest allies, said the idea of targeting such sites “undercuts” the U.S. mission and would create “more problems.”
“We’re not at war with the culture of the Iranian people,” Graham said. “The cultural sites, religious sites are not lawful targets under the rule of war.”
Graham said he conveyed that view to the president Monday.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, Christal Hayes
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