Pentagon chief and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper meets the press. File photo
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 US 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 US 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 US.
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 traveling 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.
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 defense and command and control locations.
The meeting in Riyadh, where Esper arrived late on Monday after an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, also took in defence issues and the current situation in the region.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper made known his regret at having accompanied Trump to the presidential photo opportunity in front of St. John's on the day of the Lafayette Square confrontations.
"I am pleased to announce that Christopher C. Miller, the highly respected Director of the National Counterterrorism Centre (unanimously confirmed by the Senate), will be Acting Secretary of Defence, effective immediately."
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