U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday told reporters he would obey international law on avoiding targeting cultural sites in military attacks, walking back a threat he made against Iran days earlier.
Trump on Saturday said the United States has targeted 52 Iranian sites, including ones that are very important to Iranian culture, and would strike if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets in response to the U.S. killing of its military commander, Qassem Soleimani.
“You know what, if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law. 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. It’s OK with me,” Trump said during a press conference with the visiting Greek Prime Minister.
Targeting cultural sites with military action is considered a war crime under international law, including a U.N. Security Council resolution supported by the Trump administration in 2017 and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper also affirmed that the U.S. military would not violate the laws of armed conflict by striking Iranian cultural sites.
Asked whether he was willing to target cultural sites, Esper told Pentagon reporters: “We will follow the laws of armed conflict.”
Pressed on whether he would then not target such sites, because that would be a war crime, Esper said: “That’s the laws of armed conflict.” He did not elaborate.
The U.S. drone strike on Friday that killed Soleimani has sharply escalated tensions with Iran, raising fears of all-out conflict. Washington says it killed Soleimani in self-defence, aiming to disrupt his plans to attack U.S. personnel and interests.
Amid Iranian threats of retaliation over Soleimani’s killing, Trump had previously tweeted over the weekend that the United States had targeted 52 Iranian sites, some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” if Iran struck any American or American assets in retaliation.
“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 on Sunday, speaking to reporters.