Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Monday Americans will “follow the laws of armed conflict." (File photo)

OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Defence 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.

Story continues below advertisement

Esper’s public comments reflected the private concerns of other defence 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 travelling 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.

Story continues below advertisement

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 defence 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.

Story continues below advertisement

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 made similar efforts to distance themselves from Trump without directly contradicting him.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday 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.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies