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Ruins of Persepolis

On Targeting Iran’s Cultural Sites

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 7, 2020

One quandary we’ve been given to contemplate is the significance of Donald Trump’s re-doubled threats to target “cultural sites” as well as military ones, a total of 52 sites, if Iran retaliates against the United States for assassinating Gen. Qasem Suleimani.

As the United Nations’ leaders remind, destroying an enemy’s cultural sites is a war crime, according to the 1954 Hague Convention, a treaty on international law that protects cultural property in conflicts. The countries signing it agreed that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people ever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind.”

Generally speaking, it also means killing civilians who might be there as well as works of irreplaceable art. Think of an enemy dropping a bomb on the Museum of Modern Art, or the Metropolitan Opera, or on the Superbowl — or driving two planes through the World Trade Center twin towers.


Indeed, from our own experience, as a calculated attempt to pressure Iranian citizens to topple their regime, this particular Trump threat seems likely to backfire.

Last night, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he would not target cultural sites, but Trump may or may not agree. He’s been known to eliminate Cabinet secretaries over such disagreements.

Trump believes that the U.S. military has the right to target Iranian cultural sites, dismissing concerns from the public and even from his own administration. Of course, it is easy enough to dismiss such talk as posturing, but we cannot accept that it is exactly this kind of public bullying that pushes allies away, that enrages the Iranians and that actually confuses Americans, whether in Congress, in the military or as citizens.


Time Magazine included an interview with a U.S. military official who said he was unfamiliar with any list that includes culture sites. “There are different lists, depending on the nature of the possible targets — missile bases, nuclear facilities, naval bases, airfields, et cetera — but I don’t know of a list that adds up to that number or one that includes cultural or historic sites like Persepolis,” he said. An additional official who worked with the Trump and Obama administrations explained that “as a nation,” the United States military “do not attack the cultural sites of any adversary.”

The ruins of Persepolis, parts of which still stand, were among the first three Iranian sites to be placed on the UNESCO list, in 1979. Some 2,300 years ag9, in 518 B.C., the city was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. It was conquered and looted by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. but remains “among the world’s greatest archaeological sites” for its evidence of ancient architecture, urban planning and art, according to UNESCO.

Trump defends his cultural site threat: “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 site? It doesn’t work that way.”

Under the hashtag #IranianCulturalSites, there is a Twitter campaign with history fans criticizing the Trump threats by identifying possible cultural treasures in Iran. The 52 number, of course, references the number of Americans held hostage during the Iranian Revolution takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.


Clearly, when compared with going to war altogether with Iran, or the horrors of adding nuclear weapons to the current escalating tensions, a discussion of the value of alternative culture sites seems to take a long second place. But it is reflective of the kind of disdain that our president is adopting even while talking seeking about “peace” with Iran — signs of which seem to be slipping further and further away.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, used Twitter to remind Trump by that international terrorists also have destroyed cultural sites. “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 out libraries,” Zarif tweeted. “Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall.”

The United States was one of the biggest critics of the ISIS efforts to destroy historical sites in Mosul, Iraq and Palmyra, Syria or the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

CNN reported that two senior U.S. officials were reporting widespread opposition within the administration to targeting cultural sites. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who went on several talk shows on Sunday to defend the Trump decision-making, insisted that there was unanimity, that the president was fully in the right, and that “We’ll behave lawfully. We’ll behave inside the system.”

In addition to the 1954 treaty protecting cultural sites, a 2017 United Nations Security Council resolution “condemns the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, including the destruction of religious sites and artifacts.” The UN was clear then that actions targeting cultural locations constituted a war crime. There also was a Hague Convention of 1907 that says that “all necessary steps must be taken” to spare “buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected.” Similarly, the Geneva Convention Protocol I, signed in 1949 and amended in 1977, renders unlawful “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.”

U.S. law says that violating these international conventions would constitute a war crime. Anyone who violates them could be imprisoned or, if death results from their actions, be sentenced to death.

Measuring the significance of sites is difficult, of course. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization lists global World Heritage Sites. The United States has 24, including Independence Hall, the San Antonio Missions, Statue of Liberty and Mesa Verde National Park. Iran, one-sixth the size of the United States, also has 24 UNESCO designations and has nominated 56 more for consideration.

The Persepolis ruins are there, as well as the Shustar hydraulic system, initiated in the fifth century B.C. and hailed by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of creative genius.” Also included as a group are eight Persian gardens whose distinct design influenced the Alhambra in Spain and the Taj Mahal in India and countless modern landscapes.

Here’s a list of the World Heritage Sites:

· Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran (2008)

· Bam and its Cultural Landscape (2004)

· Bisotun (2006)

· Cultural Landscape of Maymand (2015)

· Golestan Palace (2013)

· Gonbad-e Qābus (2012)

· Historic City of Yazd (2017)

· Masjed-e Jāmé of Isfahan (2012)

· Meidan Emam, Esfahan (1979)

· Pasargadae (2004)

· Persepolis (1979)

· Sassanid Archaeological Landscape of Fars Region (2018)

· Shahr-i Sokhta (2014)

· Sheikh Safi al-din Khānegāh and Shrine Ensemble in Ardabil (2010)

· Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System (2009)

· Soltaniyeh (2005)

· Susa (2015)

· Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex (2010)

· Takht-e Soleyman (2003)

· Tchogha Zanbil (1979)

· The Persian Garden (2011)

· The Persian Qanat (2016)

Natural (2)

· Hyrcanian Forests (2019)

· Lut Desert (2016)

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