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Trump condemned for threats to Iran's cultural sites

January 7, 2020

Following controversial comments by US President Donald Trump threatening to attack historical sites, UNESCO and other cultural leaders have expressed their outrage. Here are some of the country's most impressive sites.

Iran Kulturstätten | Tachara
Image: Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji

The director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, received on Monday the ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to discuss the tensions in the Middle East that could affect cultural heritage sites in the region.

Azoulay recalled that Iran and the United States were among the signatories of two conventions, one of 1954 and one from 1972, through which states pledge they will not undertake any deliberate measures that might damage cultural and natural heritage on the territory of other states party to those conventions.

The UNESCO director-general also stressed "the universality of cultural and natural heritage as vectors of peace and dialogue between peoples, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations."

Read more: US and Iran: Decades of enmity

A chorus of condemnations

Joining the UN's cultural agency, several other authorities have also spoken out against controversial comments by US President Donald Trump. Among them are heads of museums and cultural associations that usually avoid taking a stand on political issues.

The Association of Art Museums (AAMD), the organization representing 225 art museums in the US, Canada and Mexico, urged in a statement on Monday that, "in the event of hostilities, steps be taken to protect the cultural heritage of both Iran and Iraq."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's director, Max Hollein, and its CEO, Daniel H. Weiss, also released a joint statement in reaction "to recent comments about Iran" — without, however, directly mentioning Trump's tweet.

"The targeting of sites of global cultural heritage is abhorrent to the collective values of our society. Our world knows precisely what is gained from protecting cultural sites, and, tragically, what is lost when destruction and chaos prevail," wrote the Met leaders on Twitter. "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."

Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, also denounced Trump's threats to destroy Iran's important cultural sites: "Just as the bulldozing of Palmyra & significant heritage sites by ISIS was abhorrent," he wrote in a tweet, continuing on by condemning the "worrying step towards the normalization of cultural destruction as a war aim."

The director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Thomas Campbell, posted his position on Instagram, pointing out that museum directors usually "remain behind the scenes." He then added: "But when the President of the United States inverts every value system our country previously stood for, and calls for destructive attacks against cultural sites in one of the oldest civilizations of the world, you have to speak out vehemently and urgently."

Trump's repeated threats — or 'open' questions?

The condemnations followed threats that started in a series of tweets by Donald Trump stating that if Iran were "to strike Americans or American assets," the US would promptly retaliate, having in its target 52 Iranian sites, including some that are "important to Iran and the Iranian culture."

On Sunday night, Trump reiterated his threat. Iran is "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," Trump told reporters.

On Monday, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway likewise contradicted the president by stating that he "didn't say he's targeting cultural sites," but was only "openly asking" a question.

She then also added: "Iran has many strategic military sites that you may cite are also cultural sites."

However, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper ruled out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict further escalates, despite Trump's threat.

Esper said at a news briefing at the Pentagon that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime. "We will follow the laws of armed conflict," he said.

Iran has 22 cultural sites on UNESCO's World Heritage list.

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture