ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
U.S. allies and the United Nations are condemning President Trump's threat to target cultural sites in Iran. Over the weekend, the president tweeted that if Tehran retaliates for the killing of a top Iranian general, the U.S. would target 52 Iranian sites. That's one for every American captured during the Iran hostage crisis. NPR's Jackie Northam reports the president's threat runs counter to international norms.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Cultural treasures have long been collateral damage of conflict, and sometimes they've been deliberately targeted. The Taliban blew up Buddhist shrines in Afghanistan. ISIS destroyed parts of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The U.S. has been involved in efforts to protect cultural sites in times of war, like those illustrated in the 2014 movie "Monuments Men," when art experts and historians tried to save priceless artworks from the Nazis.
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MATT DAMON: (As James Granger) You want to go into a war zone and tell our boys what they can and cannot blow up.
GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Frank Stokes) That's the idea.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: (As Donald Jeffries) If you would just read the orders...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'll tell you what these orders say. Don't knock out old...
CLOONEY: (As Frank Stokes) Colonel, be fair.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Do not interrupt me, lieutenant.
NORTHAM: In 1954, nations, including the U.S., signed the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict. Kelly Magsamen is a former National Security Council and Pentagon official under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. She says the Hague Convention is one of several measures that would make it illegal for the Trump administration to target cultural sites in Iran.
KELLY MAGSAMEN: It would be a violation of the Geneva Convention, Protocol I. It would be a violation of the 1954 Hague Convention. And it would also be a violation, importantly, of U.S. law and a violation of the DoD directive on law of war.
NORTHAM: But there is a waiver in the Hague Convention which would allow a nation to target cultural property out of military necessity - in other words, if a country is camouflaging weapons or fighters within a cultural site. Magsamen says, then the U.S. military would have to make a broader calculation.
MAGSAMEN: I'm pretty certain that that calculation would err on the side of avoiding targeting a major cultural or historical site. I mean, that is - those are the kinds of things that the Taliban does, that ISIS does. It's not what we do as the United States of America.
NORTHAM: That didn't stop President Trump from doubling down on his threat even, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to walk it back. Here he is on ABC's "This Week" program.
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MIKE POMPEO: We'll behave lawfully. We'll behave inside the system. We always have, and we always will.
NORTHAM: The U.S. military in the past has taken care with its targeting. The Defense Intelligence Agency has worked with the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield to help educate troops about the obligations under the Hague Convention. The committee, a nonprofit organization, produced cards for U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt, says its president, Nancy Wilkie.
NANCY WILKIE: Some of the cards say things like, if you notice a mound that has pottery coming out of it, don't collect anything; report it to the authorities - 'cause the military is often out in places where archaeologists haven't even been in an effort to do a survey of archaeological sites.
NORTHAM: Wilkie says her group hasn't been able to document the cultural sites in Iran.
WILKIE: It's just - Iran is huge. And there are so many cultural sites - anywhere between five and 10 thousand sites, I would suspect.
NORTHAM: That includes 22 UNESCO World Heritage sites, some as grand as the ancient ruins of Persepolis. Today, Iran's ambassador to UNESCO met with its general director to discuss President Trump's threats and the need to protect cultural treasures for future generations.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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