Pentagon rejects Trump threat to hit Iranian cultural sites

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon on Monday distanced itself from President Donald Trump’s assertions that he would bomb Iranian cultural sites despite international prohibitions on such attacks.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. will “follow the laws of armed conflict.” When asked if that ruled out targeting cultural sites, Esper said pointedly, “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

The split between the president and his Pentagon chief came amid heightened tensions with Tehran following a U.S. drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force. Trump had twice warned that he would hit Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliates against the U.S.

Esper’s public comments reflected the private concerns of other defense and military officials, who cited legal prohibitions on attacks on civilian, cultural and religious sites, except under certain, threatening circumstances.

Trump first raised the prospect of targeting cultural sites in a tweet on Saturday and reiterated that view to reporters the next day.

“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 & Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD," he tweeted.

His Twitter message caught administration officials off-guard and prompted an immediate outcry from legal scholars, national security experts and Democratic lawmakers. But the president stood by his threat the following day.

“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,” he told reporters traveling with him on Air Force One. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”

By international law, however, it does.

Specifically, the 1954 Hague Convention says nations must “take all possible steps” to protect cultural property and shall refrain “from any act of hostility, directed against such property.” It also says nations must not use cultural sites for any threatening purposes that would make such locations a military target.

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Iranian mourners gather during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport on January 3 in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian mourners gather around a vehicle carrying the coffin of slain top general Qasem Soleimani during the final stage of funeral processions, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport Friday in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian mourners gather during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport on January 3 in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian mourners stand on a bridge during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport on January 3 in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
An Iranian mourner holds a placard during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport on January 3 in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian mourners gather during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport on January 3 in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian mourners hold posters of slain top general Qasem Soleimani during the final stage of funeral processions in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport on January 3 in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
An Iranian mourner burns incense during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport on January 3 in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian mourners gather during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport Friday in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian mourners gather around a vehicle carrying the coffin of slain top general Qasem Soleimani during the final stage of funeral processions, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport Friday in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian mourners gather during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. - Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport Friday in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed "severe revenge". The assassination of the 62-year-old heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and rattled financial markets. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
In this image made from a video, mourners gather to pay their respects to the slain Gen. Qassem Soleimani who was killed in a U.S. airstrike, in Kerman, Iran Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. (Iran Press via AP)
Mourners walk back from a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone attack on Friday, passing a satirical drawing of the Statue of Liberty painted on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Funeral ceremonies for Soleimani drew a crowd said by police to be in the millions, on Monday in Tehran, where his replacement vowed to take revenge. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Coffins of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and others who were killed in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike, are carried on a truck surrounded by mourners during a funeral procession at the Enqelab-e-Eslami (Islamic Revolution) square in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. The processions mark the first time Iran honored a single man with a multi-city ceremony. Not even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, received such a processional with his death in 1989. Soleimani on Monday will lie in state at Tehran's famed Musalla mosque as the revolutionary leader did before him. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
In this image taken from video, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, openly weeps as he leads a prayer over the coffin of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone strike on Friday, at the Tehran University campus, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Iran Press TV via AP)
A mourner walk back from a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone attack on Friday, passing graffiti on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. A push led by pro-Iran factions to oust U.S. troops from Iraq is gaining momentum, bolstered by a Parliament vote in favor of a bill calling on the the government to remove them. But the path forward is unclear. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
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The Pentagon has long had a list of potential targets both inside Iran as well as those associated with Iran throughout the Middle East. Those targets and war plans are routinely updated, including during the recent uptick in hostilities.

Officials won’t discuss the list, but it is certain to include an array of Iranian military sites and capabilities, including missile, air defense and command and control locations.

Any targets would go through a lengthy vetting process within the military and the Pentagon to determine that they are legal, appropriate and proportionate to any Iranian action. Only after that process is complete would a list of potential sites go before the president for approval.

Outside the Pentagon, Trump's threats were met with condemnation.

“It shows that he is somewhat deranged about this," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “The pledge to attack cultural sites, likely, is a violation of international law.”

Kaine said that all Trump is doing “is escalating tensions and he seems to believe, 'I can strike you, but you can't strike me.' That's not the way the world works.” He added that Trump needs to confer with Congress.

The threats also drew reaction from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“The targeting of sites of global cultural heritage is abhorrent to the collective values of our society,” museum leaders said in a statement. "At this challenging time, we must remind ourselves of the global importance of protecting cultural sites – the objects and places by which individuals, communities, and nations connect to their history and heritage.

Ahead of Esper’s comments, other administration officials tried to make clear that the U.S. would follow the law without directly contradicting the president.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday said that any U.S. military strikes inside Iran would be legal.

“We'll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”

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