Politics

Trump backs off threat to target Iranian cultural sites: 'I like to obey the law'

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he is "okay with" following laws that prevent him from destroying Iranian cultural sites, after previously threatening to target and attack them.
  • Trump had originally mentioned cultural sites in a threat toward Iran, which had vowed "harsh revenge" against the U.S. for killing its top military leader, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, days earlier.
  • Targeting cultural sites in that way could constitute a war crime under laws of armed conflict.
VIDEO5:2505:25
Trump: We're supposed to be careful with Iran's cultural heritage

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he is "okay with" following laws that prevent him from destroying Iranian cultural sites, after previously threatening to target and attack them.

Trump originally mentioned Iran's cultural sites as part of a threat toward Tehran, which had vowed "harsh revenge" against the U.S. for killing its top military leader, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, in an airstrike days earlier.

Targeting cultural sites in that way could constitute a war crime under laws of armed conflict.

In the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump expressed skepticism about the rules, but nevertheless said he would follow the law.

"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," he said.

"And you know? 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, but then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions," Trump said.

"But I'm okay with it. It's okay with me," he added.

Greek Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis meets with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 7, 2020.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Some of Trump's senior officials had distanced the administration from Trump's threat.

A day after Trump tweeted that the U.S. had targeted some sites "at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview that the president "didn't say he'd go after a cultural site" — even though he did.

On Air Force One on Sunday, Trump doubled down: "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. And we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites. It doesn't work that way."

When asked about Trump's remarks, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said "we will follow the laws of armed conflict."

Asked if that meant "no" because targeting cultural sites constitutes a war crime under those laws, the nation's top general replied, "That's the laws of armed conflict."

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