Factcheck: Conway, Pompeo on Iranian Cultural Sites

President Donald Trump twice threatened to target cultural sites in Iran if Iranian leaders retaliate for the killing of its top military commander. Even so, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway both falsely claimed that Trump never made such a threat.

Trump first made such remarks in a tweet on Jan. 4, and then doubled down on his warning when talking to reporters a day later on Air Force One.

In two tweets, Trump said: “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have….. 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, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”

Trump’s tweet came two days after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, threatened “severe revenge” for the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad’s airport on Jan. 2.

The president’s critics claimed that attacking cultural sites would violate international law. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar said attacks on cultural sites constitute “war crimes,” although that may or may not be the case — depending on the circumstances.

International law — specifically the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict — prohibits “any act of hostility against fixed cultural property, “such as museums, large libraries and depositories of archives,” as well as “movable” property, such as art, manuscripts and books. The protections “may be waived only in cases where military necessity imperatively requires such a waiver.”

“[A]lthough international law does provide special protection to certain cultural sites, attacking them (or threatening to do so) is not always a war crime as the legislators seem to think,” Ret. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., the former deputy judge advocate general of the United States Air Force, wrote in a Jan. 6 blog post for Duke University, where he is a law professor.

In response to his Democratic critics, Trump defended his position and reiterated his threat to attack Iranian cultural sites.

“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 site? It doesn’t work that way,” the president told reporters Jan. 5 on Air Force One.

Even so, two top administration officials falsely denied that Trump ever threatened Iranian cultural sites.

“President Trump didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site. Read what he said very closely,” Pompeo said, referring to Trump’s tweet, in a Jan. 5 interview on “Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo” on Fox News.

After Trump doubled down on his threat, Conway told reporters at a Jan. 6 press briefing, “He didn’t say he’s targeting cultural sites.”

Pompeo and Conway stressed that the U.S. will act within the law if it strikes any targets in Iran.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Pompeo told host George Stephanopoulos: “We’ll behave lawfully. We’ll behave inside the system. We always have and we always will, George. You know that.”

In her remarks to reporters, Conway said: “Secretary Pompeo said yesterday that we will be within the law.”

Conway went on to say, “I think that Iran has many military, strategic military sites that you may cite are also cultural sites.” The White House declined to name any, but as Dunlap wrote it is possible that a cultural site could become a legitimate military target in certain situations.

Still, Conway and Pompeo were wrong when they claimed that Trump didn’t say he would target cultural sites. He did so. Twice.

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