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Illegal. Barbaric. And Foolish.

Attacking Iranian cultural sites would violate the law and harm American interests.
January 7, 2020
Illegal. Barbaric. And Foolish.
The tomb of Cyrus the Great—the founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire—in Pasargadae, Iran, the capital of the first great multicultural empire in Western Asia. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty)

President Trump has a unique ability to shoot himself in the foot—in both victory and defeat. Among the latest examples is how, after the killing of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani—arguably Trump’s most significant and consequential foreign policy decision to date—Trump took to Twitter to warn that the United States has plans to carry out strikes against 52 Iranian sites, including ones of cultural importance to Iran. It was such a stupid comment that his secretary of state has stumbled and fumbled in trying to explain it.

There are two questions to ask here: First, is it legal? Second, is it prudent? Let’s tackle each question in turn.

In the realm of international law, one of the amendments to the Geneva Conventions—specifically Protocol I, from 1977—holds that “it is prohibited . . . to commit any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.” That would seem pretty clear cut—except that neither the United States nor Iran has ratified Protocol I. (The governments of both countries signed the treaty in 1977 but never ratified it.)

Parties to another treaty, the 1954 Hague Convention, agree to refrain “from any act of hostility, directed against” “cultural property,” defined as

movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above.

The treaty’s definition of “cultural property” also includes buildings—like important museums, libraries, and depositories— intended to store objects of the sort described above. And unlike Protocol I, the Hague Convention actually has been ratified by both Iran (in 1959) and the United States (in 2009). Parties to the treaty agree to attack cultural property “only in cases where military necessity imperatively requires such a waiver.”

As a ratified treaty, the 1954 Hague Convention is “the supreme Law of the Land,” per the U.S. Constitution. The president is legally bound by it. And while the U.S. military is required to obey lawful orders from the commander in chief, an order to attack, intentionally and without military necessity, an enemy’s cultural property would violate U.S. law.

This is spelled out in the U.S. Department of Defense Law of War Manual, which instructs department personnel to act in accordance with the Hague Convention, and insists that the “military necessity” exception “should not be confused with convenience or be used to cloak slackness or indifference to the preservation of cultural property.” Hence, service members are required to refuse such an order. This means that the president is lying when he claims that there are already military plans to strike at such targets.

All that said, nobody should be having to ask this question to begin with; the lawfulness of deliberately attacking a civilian and cultural site of an adversarial country should always be an irrelevant question for the American military. Under Donald Trump, it isn’t.

War is settling political disputes between states by other means. The disputes that the United States may need to settle militarily are not with the Iranian people but with the government of Iran.

There is a line in Captain America: The First Avenger that I love: “So many people forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own.” It is also true of Iran. The first victims of the Islamic Republic were the Iranian people, and they remain the victims who have paid the highest price so far.

Persian civilization goes back seven millennia. The Iranians are miserable at present, so they cling to their proud culture and rich history for consolation—and very few things make Iranians as defensive as perceived slights of their culture and history. Before the Islamic Republic came to power, the people of Iran were individually Muslim and collectively Iranian. For four decades, the Islamic Republic has been trying to make them collectively Muslim and reduce the Iranian identity to the individual level. It has failed. Undoing the work of seven millennia is not that easy, and Iranians have strengthened their national identity as a defensive mechanism against the regime.

Enter Donald Trump. In his scripted speeches and messages, Trump always talks about the rich Iranian culture, which is music to any Iranian’s ears. But when he goes off script, as he does regularly, things come out differently. Like when he called the Persian Gulf “the Arabian Gulf,” a historically incorrect term that gets on any Iranian’s nerves. Or like when he calls Iran “a terrorist nation,” which, however he intends it, is perceived by Iranians as a charge not against the government but against the Iranian people—an accusation of being terrorists. And like now, when he is threatening to target Iran’s cultural sites.

A pet peeve of mine is the claim by some Iran hands and journalists that Trump’s tough rhetoric is making Iranians rally round the Islamic Republic’s flag. I love ridiculing how the New York Times’s Iran bureau chief, Thomas Erdbrink, had a story that argued that Trump’s rhetoric was uniting Iranians behind the government in November 2017—just a month before the most violent anti-regime protests in Iran’s history (up till then) erupted.

Despite Erdbrink’s reporting, Trump’s moves on the nuclear deal back in 2017 didn’t unite Iranians behind the regime. But an attack on Iran’s cultural sites would. My childhood friends in Iran hate the regime and this past November were risking their lives to fight it. But even they say that they would not desire regime change if the price were a permanent loss of Iranian territory through secession or irreversible damage to the objects of Iran’s cultural pride. Trump’s statement will just enhance the regime, strengthening its footing domestically and undermining the Trump administration’s own efforts to weaken the regime at home and abroad.

Beyond the questions of legality and prudence, there are questions of character: What do the American people want to stand for, and what do they want their military to fight for? Eliot Cohen, as usual, said it best:

Even after Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and more, the United States deliberately refrained from bombing Kyoto, because it was and is a cultural jewel. Talk of hitting Iranian cultural sites is not mere vulgarity—it indicates a willingness to barbarize our military.

American strategic culture relies on just war theory for reasons both of morality and of self-interest. When going to war, it is better to be greeted as liberators than resisted as invaders. When we occupy a foreign country, our best intelligence sources are the local citizens. That can happen only if they like us and trust us. And this isn’t just the case for Iran. Creating a barbaric image of our military encourages not just Iranians but all foreign nations to resist us. It encourages them to risk their lives to protect their cultures and heritages. And the more they are encouraged to resist, the more our own troops’ lives are in danger.

Trump’s defenders will claim that tweets are not strategy. No, they aren’t. But they do make it more difficult to make strategy. Trump’s comment about attacking Iranian cultural sites will make Iranians—and, for that matter, just about every other nation—think of the American military more as a cultural menace than as liberating angels. Iranians who were hoping for a U.S. intervention during last November’s protests, and I know a lot of them personally, are now going to consider whether the cost of that intervention would be destruction of Hafiz’s shrine, Pasargad, or Bisotun. The same rule applies to any other oppressed nation that might look to the United States as a liberator.

Once again, Trump has reminded us all why he is unfit to be the commander in chief—not only because of his poor intellect and poor management style, but also because he is a contemptible man with no regard for law or morality, prudence or strategy.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.