On January 4, 2020, the President of the United States threatened to destroy Iranian cultural sites in a tweet.
....targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very… https://t.co/p1wqtpTcpt— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump) 1578178325.0
"Iran has been nothing but problems for many years," he wrote. "Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, 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 & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!"
To be clear, the purposeful targeting of cultural sites is a war crime. The U.S. is party to two international agreements, the the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Hague Convention of 1954, which specifically outlaw the intentional destruction of cultural property. In addition, our own Defense Department's Law of War Manual prohibits destroying cultural sites, and the U.S. War Crimes Act makes such acts punishable within our own justice system. It doesn't matter if someone else attacks first—a war crime is a war crime is a war crime.
Cultural sites do not belong only to the nation that houses them. Over centuries, countries and governments change hands, and being at war with a current government is not the same as being at war with a country's people or culture or history. That's why historically or religiously significant places, as well as renowned works of art and architecture, are treasures for all of humanity and should be protected as such. To destroy them in an act of aggression or retaliation is short-sighted, and a loss for us all.
Architectural historian and professor at UMass Dartmouth, Pamela Karimi, shared 36 photos of Iranian cultural sites on Facebook to show what could potentially be lost if Trump followed through on his threat. From the ancient relief carvings of Persepolis to 700-year-old gardens to intricately designed places of worship, Iran is home to some of the world's oldest and most beautiful works of the human hand.
Many of the photographs in the collection were taken by Iranian photographer Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji, and they are simply stunning. Those of us living in the West are used to seeing the icons of Western Civilization—the Parthenon, the Sistine Chapel, the Statue of David—as cultural treasures and are often ignorant to the incredible works of human creativity and ingenuity in other areas of the world. Knowing how photos rarely do justice to a place, these sites in Iran are deserving of our reverence and protection, no matter where we happened to have been born.
Just look at these wonders the photographer shared on his own page.
Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz, (1888)Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji Photography/Facebook
Persepolis, northeast of Shiraz (ca. 550–330 BCE)Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji Photography/Facebook
Chehel Sotoun palace (literally "palace of Forty Columns"), Isfahan (1647)
Vakil mosque, Shiraz (18th century)Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji Photography/Facebook
Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae (6th century BC)Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji Photography/Facebook
Shah mosque, Isfahan (1629)Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji Photography/Facebook
Boroujerdiha House, Kashan (1857)Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji Photography/Facebook
Eram Gardens, Shiraz (13th century)Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji Photography/Facebook
Despite the president doubling down on the idea, the Pentagon has stated that striking cultural sites with no military value would indeed be a war crime, and that the U.S. military has no plans to do so. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at a news briefing, "We will follow the laws of armed conflict." According to the New York Times, when asked if that meant "no" to the question of whether cultural sites would be targeted as the president had suggested, Esper replied, "That's the laws of armed conflict."
However, the U.S. military gets its final orders from the president himself. Let's hope the commander in chief educates himself on international law, abides by our agreements, and acknowledges what a foolish and tragic mistake it would be to go after any of the world's cultural treasures.