Trump’s Twitter Threat to Destroy Iran’s Cultural Sites is a Historic Mistake

By threatening Iran’s cultural heritage, Trump puts himself in history’s club of barbarians, writes David J. Wasserstein.

Threatening cultural sites like Persepolis could tarnish U.S.’ reputation as pillar of the international community. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

By David J. Wasserstein
The Conversation

Be careful of the company you keep.

In a threat delivered over Twitter on Jan. 4, U.S. President Donald Trump said that he is prepared to “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” culturally important targets in Iran should the country retaliate for the American killing of its top general

[On Tuesday Trump backtracked after domestic and international criticism, acknowledging that such attacks would be a war crime. “If that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law,” he told reporters in the Oval Office.] 

As a historian who has written about the medieval Islamic roots of the Islamic State group, I can tell you that by threatening Iran’s cultural heritage, Trump puts himself in the company of some repugnant characters.

Wonders Lost

History’s club of barbarians includes Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, who planned the destruction of hundreds of his country’s picturesque villages and churches before he was deposed and executed in 1989.

Just days after the outbreak of war in 1914, German soldiers burned down the centuries-old Leuven library in neutral Belgium, along with its unique collection of books and manuscripts. The Belgians, with American help, rebuilt the library – only for it to be burned down for a second time 26 years later by the Nazis.

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler wanted to demolish the landmarks of Paris as World War II neared an end – a fate that was only avoided because his soldiers refused to carry out the orders.

More recently, the Taliban blew up Afghanistan’s famed Bamiyan Buddhas and the Islamic State group destroyed the ancient cities of Hatra and Palmyra, along with much of Mosul, including the 900-year-old Nuri mosque.

None of those sites were targeted for military reasons. All of the attacks were wanton, aimed at destruction of the cultural and artistic heritage of humanity.

The heavily damaged Nuri mosque in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, in 2017. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

A Rich History

Iran is home to more than 20 World Heritage sites as designated by the UN cultural body UNESCO, including the ruins of Persepolis that date back to the sixth century B.C.

Trump did not specify what locations he was targeting, other than to say in a tweet that 52 Iranian sites had been identified including “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”

He has since doubled down on the threat, telling reporters: “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.”

UNESCO responded by reminding the U.S. that it is bound by two conventions, one of which stipulates that signatories must not embark on “deliberate measures which might damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage” of another party. The U.K., a traditional Washington ally, likewise distanced itself from Trump’s comments by pointing toward international conventions. On Jan. 6, Trump’s Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a statement at odds with the president, saying the U.S. would “follow the laws of armed conflict.” Pressed on whether that meant no attacks on cultural sites, Esper reiterated: “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested that such bombing would amount to a war crime.

After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, some feared that the new regime would be hostile to the study of the country’s pre-Islamic, even pre-revolutionary, past. Such concerns were not necessary. Iranian scholarship continued under the new regime and thrives to this day.

Two years ago, when Notre Dame burned, Zarif tweeted: “Saddened that Notre Dame – that iconic monument dedicated to the worship of our one God & that brought all of us closer through Hugo’s literary masterpiece – is partially destroyed after standing through wars & revolution for 800 yrs.”

Two thousand years ago, the great Roman historian Tacitus put the following words in the mouth of a heroic leader of British resistance to the might of imperial Rome: “They make a desert and they call it peace.”

The world has come to expect barbarism from Trump’s tweets, but barbarism in action is another thing. Ugly speech is hurtful, but at least it leaves the monuments of the past untouched.

David J. Wasserstein is professor of history and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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18 comments for “Trump’s Twitter Threat to Destroy Iran’s Cultural Sites is a Historic Mistake

  1. Sally Mitcheell
    January 8, 2020 at 15:38

    The pursuit of world peace clean air sustainable water nutritional food and safe shelter seems to be beyond our human grasp it really now looks like machines of technology are what will save us let the data determine our outcomes

  2. January 8, 2020 at 14:26

    The remark about Ceausescu, planing the distuction of Romanian vilages, is not acurate!
    I’m from Romania, but I neve heard anithing like this, until now. Sorry, you just made that up!

  3. V
    January 8, 2020 at 14:00

    “Threatening cultural sites like Persepolis could tarnish U.S.’ reputation as pillar of the international community.”

    Are you kidding me? Who writes this stuff?

  4. alley cat
    January 8, 2020 at 13:55

    In the last paragraph of his post, David Wasserstein says that “[t]he world has come to expect barbarism from Trump’s tweets, but barbarism in action is another thing.”

    Yes. Trump has put a new element in play. Until now, his barbaric threats could be dismissed as posturing and bluster, but after the murder of Soleimani we are forced to take Trump at his word. And his words invoke the darkest nightmares of inhumane conduct. Trump sees nothing wrong with destroying Iranian cultural sites in retaliation for Iranian retaliation. Nor does he see anything wrong with murdering Soleimani, an implacable foe of terrorism during the last twenty years, on the grounds that Soleimani was a terrorist who was planning an imminent attack on Americans. We are expected to believe this accusation, like the accusation that Saddam Hussein was hiding WMD, on the basis of lies and hyperbole.

    Trump’s merciless economic warfare against Iran, his murder of Soleimani, and his threats against Iranian cultural sites all shine a light on the dark jungle, inhabited by monsters and goblins, that our president carries around inside his head. From the dark recesses of his savage id sprang the notion that savagery would destroy Iranians’ will to resist the imperial yoke that Trump proffers.

    The phony truce that now prevails cannot last. Trump and other oligarchs will never allow their prey to escape so easily. Americans can use this lull before the storm to try to stop our oligarchy’s relentless quest for global hegemony.

    Otherwise, our worst nightmares await us.

  5. rosemerry
    January 8, 2020 at 12:54

    I notice that the author made no mention of the USA destruction of Iraq’s huge array of cultural treasures, which has occurred since 2003 and surely is not forgotten. Nobody doubts the barbarism of Trump, or George W. Bush, but the same applies too nearly every POTUS judging by their choice of targets and “justifications” for their destruction.

  6. John Puma
    January 8, 2020 at 11:37

    Re: “U.S.’ reputation as pillar of the international community”

    Pillar of total depravity, perhaps, … and well established BEFORE the
    arrival of His Hairness (aka “Trump”).

    This threat realized, however, would put the US a few notches below
    the Taliban that blew up massive Buddha (Bamyan) statues carved into
    cliff walls.

  7. Stan W.
    January 8, 2020 at 11:25

    So, how do we know that President Trump intends to carry out such “threats’? Is it possible he’s baiting the Iranians? Stranger things have happened.

  8. Truth first
    January 8, 2020 at 11:08

    “Threatening cultural sites like Persepolis could tarnish U.S.’ reputation as pillar of the international community.”

    Huhhh, the US a pillar of the international community?? You have got to be kidding.

    Since WW2 the US has started more wars based on bullshit than any other country. Killed more innocent people. Exported more killing equipment. Caused more climate change. Supported more despotic leaders, etc. etc. A “pillar” my ass!!

  9. January 8, 2020 at 11:07

    Trump is already in history’s club of barbarians. One only has to look at his treatment of refugees and immigrants to prove this.

  10. Mary
    January 8, 2020 at 10:28

    I am intrigued by how he was tricked into doing this.

    Searching for silver in the dross, this heinous behavior prompted a glorious parade of jaw-droopingly beautiful Iranian architecture on my news feeds.

    When the corruption clears in the District of Cons, many will want to visit Iran to see these amazing places.

    There is only one world politician, that I know of, that approved, what was done.

    Am I correct about that?

  11. January 8, 2020 at 09:21

    The corrupt capitalist US government, the bought and paid for MSM and the sadistic MIC will do and say anything to take over other countries in the world who have what they want – Examples: Venezuela has oil reserves that they drool over; Bolivia had a true democracy which they abhor and has lithium which makes their muscles twitch; Afghanistan has both oil and opioids which make their eyes spin; Iraq has oil reserves that they are willing to murder for; Honduras is known for its rich natural resources which they envy; Nicaragua has gold and silver to fill their coffers; they are willing to bomb Syria and Yemen to smithereens for their oil and strategic locations; Lebanon is too close to Israel for comfort; Sudan has chromium ore, copper, iron ore, mica, silver, gold, tungsten, and zinc that they long for. These imperialists are taking over the world bit by bit at the bidding of the wealthy few while we sand by and watch. This country makes me want to vomit!

  12. cat
    January 8, 2020 at 08:44

    The U.S. wars in the Middle East resulted in (for the unfotrunate country) virtually
    complete loss of gold reserves and even museum tyreasures were not spared. At least
    this time, Trump is only interested in wiping out ‘cultural sites’, thank goodness.

  13. Realist
    January 8, 2020 at 05:02

    We’ve repeatedly seen this attitude of cultural superiority over other nations we’ve laid waste. Not so long ago Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reacted to the looting of Iraqi antiquities from national museums by saying that “Freedom is untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.*” “Looting, he added, was not uncommon for countries that experience significant social upheaval. “Stuff happens.*” What can the world expect from a society that nearly exterminated scores of indigenous cultures across the entire North American continent to put every square inch of the land under the rule of the stars and stripes and its wonderful “freedom and democracy?”

    (*Sean Laughlin,, 12 Apr 2003)

    • Gregory Herr
      January 8, 2020 at 18:19

      That Rumsfeld with his smart aleck way of turning a phrase! The real beaut was when a soldier (3 years into the invasion!—many lives and limbs already lost) asked Rumsfeld why the rank-and-file had to makeshift their own up-armor for their Humvees —- and Rumsfeld gives his smarmy “you go to war with the army you have…not the one you wish you had.”

  14. Donald Duck
    January 8, 2020 at 04:31

    It’s not just Trump that is the problem, although he is certainly a part of it. The fact of the matter is that the neo-barbarism of the United States is systemic. A system which produces the likes of Madeleine Albright, John Bolton, Sheldon Adelson and the rest of the neo-con zionist crazy-gang with their murderous policies and practises and their immovable stranglehold on US foreign policy,represents a real and present threat not only to America but also to the rest of the planet.

    The US death machine operates outside of any control, does not conform to International Law and very much in the style of the indigenous mafia. Down on your knees before the Hegemon or prepare to ‘get whacked’ to use the mafia’s vernacular.

    But even Godfather Corleone knew how to occasionally use diplomacy. In the present US establishment, however, ‘diplomacy’ has become equated with ‘appeasement’. God help us all.

  15. uncle tungsten
    January 8, 2020 at 00:30

    Of course Trump will destroy their cultural heritage. That is what the USA stands for: erase all histories of others and project their fake image of themselves. Walking, talking, war criminals.
    M ake
    A merica
    G o
    A way

    • January 8, 2020 at 11:19


    • Anonymous
      January 9, 2020 at 20:28

      Happens within our borders too. Don’t forget that, please, lest it seem that citizens support any of this at anything except the wrong end of a TV set and a prescription pad.

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