Trump comments threaten cultural destruction, says top archaeologists

By Seb Peltekian
Medill Reports

In a series of tweets posted on Jan. 4, President Donald Trump threatened to destroy 52 Iranian sites if “Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets.”

The tweet stated that the sites “could be important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”

The Iranian regime “is 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 sites? It doesn’t work that way,” Trump said aboard Air Force One the next day, according to NBC News.

President Trump’s statements came during heightened tensions between Washington and the Islamic Republic following the slaying of high-ranking Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3.

Critics argued that if the Trump administration were to target cultural sites during a conflict, as the president’s comments suggest, this might constitute war crimes. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper seemed to agree with this claim. According to the New York Times, Esper stated during a Jan. 6 press conference at the Pentagon that, should a war break out, the U.S. military “will follow the rules of armed conflict.”

The secretary’s comments referred to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, an international treaty which protects cultural sites during wartime, as per UNESCO. The United States is a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention treaty.

President Trump subsequently walked back from his threats on Jan 7, saying to reporters in the Oval Office, “We are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage. And you know what? If that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law.”

However, during his campaign rally in Milwaukee on Jan. 14, with 12,000 people in attendance, he announced that, “We had designated targets that would have taken them (the Iranians) 30 years to rebuild, if it was even possible.”

The comments at the rally did not specify what sort of sites, whether cultural or not, would have been targeted.

But some archaeologists are concerned by the string of comments, such as Abbas Alizadeh, director of the Iranian Prehistoric Project at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, who said, “Attacking cultural sites has absolutely no strategic value. It just makes him [Trump] look terrible in the eyes of Iranians.” 

Ancient Iranian works of art in the Oriental Institute’s collection. (Michael Tropea/Courtesy of the Oriental Institute)

The statements have only added to the difficulties for those who study the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, he said.

“It’s very difficult to do archaeology when there is a political crisis or there is a war, for that matter. Because of that, a lot of people who do archaeology in the Near East and Middle East work as if there’s no tomorrow because they know that next year they may not be able to go,” said Alizadeh, who is unsure when he will be able to continue his field research in the region. 

Alizadeh’s colleague Gil Stein, a professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago, was quick to point out specific instances of recent cultural destruction in the greater Middle East by terrorist groups.

“Cultural heritage has become a political weapon. It’s become very highly politicized, and so groups like ISIS and the Taliban destroy cultural heritage as a way of attacking their enemies. One of the ways you attack your enemies is you destroy their culture, that’s what holds a group of people together as a society. It’s their shared past and their shared history. That’s what defines them as who they are.” 

Stein further explained how destruction of cultural heritage can be linked to genocide. “When the Nazis went after the Jews, what did they try to do? They tried to destroy their synagogues” during the Holocaust. “When there was the Armenian Genocide, again, Armenian churches were destroyed just as people were destroyed,” he said.

In addition to threatening archaeological research, modern Iranians and other peoples in the region felt that their cultural identities had been threatened by Trump’s statements.

“What Trump managed to do was essentially take Iranians from all walks of life and all ideologies and unite them under this sort of common chant” opposing him, said Mana Mostatabi, communications director for the National Iranian American Council. “This is a war crime. It is no longer the regime that you’re going after, you are actually targeting the fabric of our culture. You are targeting the Iranian people at the basest level.”

Trump’s comments and tweets are in contrast to long-standing American values, Stein said.

“We’ve always protected cultural heritage. That’s always been part of our DNA as a country. And what President Trump was threatening to do completely goes against it,” Stein said, saying, “The archeological community was united in condemning these threats. Whether or not they’re actually carried out, it’s a very dangerous precedence.” 

Photo at top: A 2,500 hundred year-old frieze of Iranian soldiers from a carving preserved in Persepolis, Iran. Persepolis is one of Iran’s most famous cultural sites and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. (Arad/Wikimedia Commons)