The Pentagon's top leader appeared to walk back the president's threat to strike Iranian cultural sites -- a move experts say would be a war crime -- should conflict between the two countries escalate.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Monday that troops will "follow the laws of armed conflict." He was responding to questions about President Donald Trump's weekend tweets, in which he said the U.S. would hit "VERY FAST AND VERY HARD" 52 already-identified targets "important to Iran & the Iranian culture."
Trump later doubled down on the threat, telling reporters the Iranians are "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."
But Esper, when pressed to address whether the military would target such sites, responded, "That's the laws of armed conflict."
Trump's threats have been met with outcry and dismay. The U.S. has a long history of protecting cultural sites, said Richard Kohn, a history professor who studies war at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"We have destroyed cultural sites for certain, uh, as collateral damage, but never to my knowledge purposefully," Kohn said. "And we've gone to great extent -- even in our most existential wars -- to avoid doing that."
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lists 24 locations in Iran as World Heritage Sites, including Persepolis, capital of an empire dating back to 500 B.C.
Attacking those sites could constitute a war crime under international laws the U.S. has either signed or sponsored, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions, a 1954 Hague Convention and a 2017 United Nations Security Council resolution.
The 2017 U.N. resolution was adopted specifically to condemn the "unlawful" looting and destruction of cultural sites across the Middle East and Afghanistan since the 9/11 terror attacks, mainly by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
The resolution cites "the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, including the destruction of religious sites and artefacts, and the looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites, notably by terrorist groups."
Kohn said military officers would be right to refuse orders to destroy cultural sites. Any orders Trump might issue, though, are likely to stop at high levels of command, he added, long before reaching individual pilots or other field-grade officers.
The U.S. military has in past wars made avoiding damage to cultural sites a priority, Kohn said.
"We didn't bomb Chiyoda, the city in Japan that was considered such an important cultural site," he said. "And we made efforts to avoid bombing artistic sites in Europe -- I think of Florence, [Italy], and its bridges and museums."
Decades later, the U.S. military was pressed to explain why it didn't do more to safeguard the Iraq Museum, a national museum in Baghdad, from looters.
Last week, the U.S. killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a prominent Iranian military leader. Iran pledged to retaliate for the killing, which is when Trump warned them about plans to strike the 52 sites, including places of cultural importance.
In a Monday statement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York said the "targeting of sites of global cultural heritage is abhorrent to the collective values of our society."
"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," the statement reads.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and retired Air National Guard officer, said he told Trump that Iranian cultural sites should not be targets.
"We're not at war with the culture of the Iranian people," he told reporters.
Rhode Island Democrat Sen. Jack Reed, a retired Army officer and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Monday that the U.S. military can defend the country without targeting cultural sites and endangering civilians.
"America is better than that," he said. "Trump's threats should be strongly condemned on a bipartisan basis."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.