SALT LAKE CITY — In the eyes of many religion scholars, historians and global leaders, President Donald Trump took a dangerous step this week when he floated the possibility of attacking Iranian cultural heritage sites.
“If Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites ... some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture,” Trump tweeted on Jan. 4.
The next day, he doubled down on his comments, telling a group of reporters that the United States should be able to retaliate against Iran in whatever way it sees fit.
“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,” he told reporters on Sunday, Jan. 5.
But as he was later advised, it does work that way under an international treaty that’s been in place for more than six decades. Nearly all attacks on cultural heritage sites are considered war crimes.
“There are laws in place that safeguard these sites,” said Eric Meyers, an emeritus professor of Judaic studies at Duke University.
Although members of the Trump administration have since walked back the president’s statements, and the president pumped the brakes on the possibility of further attacks when he addressed the nation Wednesday, the conflict with Iran is far from over. Here’s what you need to know about existing protections for cultural heritage sites and why they matter:
Why are these cultural heritage sites vulnerable?
The impulse to attack cultural heritage sites is often associated with terrorist organizations, but they are far from the only people to gravitate toward this type of violence, Meyers said. For nearly as long as human civilization has existed, warring parties have taken aim at each others’ most cherished cities and possessions.
“There are so many bad guys in this story,” he said.
When Christians gained power under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, they leveled synagogues to the ground, Meyers said. As the Allied forces neared victory in World War II, they bombed Dresden, Germany, which was more of a cultural landmark than a military stronghold.
In 2001 in Afghanistan, the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which had towered over the region since the 6th century. The Islamic State bombed “one building after the other” in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, between 2015 and 2017, tearing apart “one of the most beautiful classical sites from antiquity,” Meyers said.
Government leaders or terrorist organizations pursue these types of attacks for a variety of reasons, including a desire to erase reminders of the past.
By targeting holy sites and churches, the Islamic State made it clear that Christians would not be welcome in the regions ISIS ruled, said Steven Howard, national outreach director for In Defense of Christians, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to support Christians in the Middle East.
“It was a strong message to Christians that they did not have a place in society as ISIS would see it,” he said.
Destroying a country’s most beloved, noble or beautiful sites enables invaders to amplify the damage they inflict, Meyers said.
“It’s like shooting someone in their core, where it hurts the most,” he said.
Are cultural heritage sites protected by international law?
The international community has long acknowledged the horror of attacks on cultural heritage sites, but, for most of human history, failed to implement and enforce meaningful protections.
Their efforts improved in the aftermath of World War II, as survivors surveyed the almost unimaginable destruction that armies left in their wake, according to a primer on cultural property protections from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In 1954, world leaders agreed to a new, international treaty on protecting cultural heritage, which bans attacks on culturally significant sites in nearly all circumstances.
The treaty covers “monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historic or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is also known as UNESCO.
Officials can ignore these protections only if an enemy is strategically using a cultural heritage site as part of its military operations.
The U.S. has been instrumental in upholding the 1954 treaty and has served as a model to other nations. American soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years received playing cards that explained the significance of major monuments and artifacts, and, in 2017, U.S. officials joined with other leaders to unanimously pass a new resolution on the importance of protecting cultural heritage sites.
“The United States for decades helped shape what some believed to be a new consensus on the destruction of cultural heritage: that this form of war and destruction is not only a crime against another warring party but also a crime against humanity that endangers civilian lives and dignity,” The Washington Post reported.
Why do protections for cultural heritage sites matter?
Attacks on cultural heritage sites constitute crimes against humanity for multiple reasons, said Omid Safi, an Iranian American who teaches Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University. They cause immense pain to existing communities while also depriving future generations of access to important lessons from the past.
“These sites, this heritage, this beauty — they belong to all of us,” he said.
When such a site is destroyed, it represents a loss of more than just a beautiful space, Safi added.
“There is a strong part of the Iranian tradition that a human being is more sacred than any building, shrine, church or mosque. And yet it’s the hopes and dreams and aspirations of humans that created those buildings. They symbolize our collective human aspiration,” he said.
Attacks on cultural heritage sites are more painful than other violent events, as Meyers noted. They strike at the heart of people’s identities and bring pain to people who have never even seen the site in person.
“Imagine if a terrorist group would go blow up the Jefferson Memorial or another one of the Washington monuments or the Mormon church in Salt Lake City,” he said. “It would be a strike against something that signifies democracy and so much more.”
Attacks on culturally significant sites are also horrific because they target civilians, rather than members of the military, Safi said. For example, if the Trump administration were to bomb Isfahan, Iran, the site of historic mosques and palaces, thousands of innocent people could die.
“Isfahan is not a fossil or a museum. It’s a living city,” Safi said. “You’re talking about murder ... in addition to destroying precious historic sites.”
Do the treaties in place keep cultural heritage sites safe?
Treaties and resolutions help global leaders discourage violence and prosecute the individuals and groups who persist in carrying out devastating attacks.
In 2016, the International Criminal Court successfully completed a first-of-its-kind trial against Ahmad al Faqi al Mahdi, an Islamic extremist who was charged with purposefully targeting holy sites in Timbuktu, Mali. A similar organization, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, “handed down war crimes convictions” tied to attacks on monuments in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s, The New York Times reported.
However, such trials are rare and have limited impact. International courts sometimes lack jurisdiction over the countries affected by culturally significant attacks, and the threat of a war crime conviction isn’t enough to stop many terrorists.
“The Hague Convention and UNESCO’s efforts have proved woefully insufficient to stanch the global tide of cultural destruction,” wrote Jason Farago, a New York Times art critic, in a column criticizing Trump’s recent tweets.
Existing treaties also don’t guarantee that younger generations will grasp the significance of cultural heritage sites, Meyers said.
“There’s an ignorance of the world’s cultures,” he said.
What cultural heritage sites are in Iran?
Ignorance helps explain why some Americans weren’t phased by Trump’s recent tweets, Meyers said. They likely don’t understand why Iran’s cultural heritage sites should matter to them.
The Iranian culture “is gorgeous,” he said. Attacking it “would be an affront the Iranian people and an affront to any people who value world heritage.”
Iran is home to artifacts that are significant to many of the world’s major religious groups, Safi said. For example, Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded by King Darius I, who is cited in the Bible. The country also houses the tomb of Daniel, one of the biblical prophets.
“There are Jewish sites, Christian sites, Muslim sites and Zoroastrian sites. ... These sites are what has made us into the human community that we are today,” he said.
It’s horrifying to imagine such sites reduced to rubble, Howard said.
“To lose tombs of the Hebrew prophets or monuments built by kings mentioned in the Old Testament, there are no words to describe what a loss that would be for the Christian faith,” he said.
What will the Trump administration do next?
Soon after Trump sent his controversial tweets on cultural sites in Iran, some of his key supporters and members of his administration contradicted or reinterpreted his claims.
“I think the president saying ‘we will hit you hard’ is the right message,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to The New York Times. “Cultural sites is not hitting them hard; it’s creating more problems.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed at a Jan. 6 news briefing that, in most cases, striking cultural heritage sites is a war crime.
“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” he said.
Despite these and other assurances, Meyers and others are still worried about what will happen next.
“President Trump ultimately seems to get his way on these things,” Meyers said.
The country should be careful not to have more in common with terrorists than other global leaders, Safi said.
“These are historic sites that have survived ... every war and every devastation in the region. Are they going to survive the (actions) of an American president?” he asked.