Trump doubles down on threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites, a war crime

Trump return to Washington
(Image credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

President Trump told reporters Sunday evening that he was serious about ordering airstrikes on Iran's cultural sites, an action that would almost certainly be a war crime under international law as well as a violation of U.S. law and Pentagon policy. He compared such acts to the targeting of U.S. troops by Iranian-backed militias in the Middle East. Iran's "allowed to kill our people," Trump told reporters on Air Force One, returning to Washington from his Christmas holiday in southern Florida. "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 sites? It doesn't work that way."

On Saturday, Trump tweeted a red line: If "Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets," in retaliation for Trump's order to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. has targeted 52 Iranian sites, some of them "a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture." Iran has 24 locations on the United Nations list of protected cultural world heritage sites.

Oona Hathaway, a Yale international law professor and former Pentagon national security law official tells The Associated Press that Trump's threat amounted to "a pretty clear promise of commission of a war crime." Kelly Magsamen, a former Pentagon and National Security Council official, agreed that bombing Iran's cultural sites "would be a war crime. DOD has very professional planners who take their obligations and fidelity to law seriously. ... Any military planner, any U.S. soldier would know that. The fact that the president of the United States doesn't know that is profoundly frightening to me. If he does know it and he's still saying it, that's even worse."

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on TV Sunday that the Trump administration is "going to do the things that are right and the things that are consistent with American lives." He told Fox News that Trump "didn’t say he'd go after a cultural site," and he suggested any action by Trump would be legal. "We'll behave inside the system," Pompeo said. "We always have and we always will." But "Trump's tough talk," The Washington Post notes, "is emblematic of a president who has flouted the tenets of international and U.S. law on war crimes."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.