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Trump appears to backtrack on threat to target Iranian cultural sites

Posted at 4:39 PM, Jan 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-07 16:55:52-05

President Donald Trump appeared to backtrack on his earlier threat to target Iran’s cultural sites — an action that would violate international law and is viewed as a war crime — after top Cabinet officials contradicted his twice-made threat.

“If that’s what the law is — I like to obey the law. But think of it, they kill our people, they blow up our people and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions,” Trump said Tuesday in the Oval Office alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Trump originally made the threat to the sites on Saturday, tweeting that the US had “targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” adding that “if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets… Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

He reiterated his threat to reporters on Air Force One on Sunday.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 07: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media during a meeting with Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis in the Oval Office of the White House January 7, 2020 in Washington, DC. Prime Minister Mitsotakis is expected to discuss various issues with President Trump, including Greece’s relations with Turkey. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

But his own top administration officials contradicted Trump’s threats to potentially target cultural sites. Defense Secretary Mark Esper emphasized the US would not break laws in its response to any Iran attack.

“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper told CNN Monday.

When pressed if that meant not targeting Iranian cultural sites, Esper replied: “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

Still, another top member of the administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday “every action” the US takes “will be consistent with the international rule of law.”

Trump, later Tuesday, expressed frustration over what he saw as a double standard in warfare.

“They blow up our people and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions,” Trump said. “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to maim our people. They’re allowed to blow up everything that we have and there’s nothing that stops them. And we are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage.”

Trump added that he’s “OK with it,” but maintained a threat: “If Iran does anything that it shouldn’t be doing. They will be suffering the consequences and very strongly.”