It’s fortunate for now for the world and humanity that the United States and Iran appear to have both hesitated on the threshold of a much-feared Armageddon.
In the days leading to this respite from escalating tension and the very real possibility of war, rhetoric from both US President Donald Trump and Iranian leader Ali Khamenei had risen to alarming levels. Trump’s “message” came in the form of a deadly drone attack on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, while Khamenei followed through with his promise of retaliation by having missiles fired into areas where American troops were based in Iraq. Fortunately, no American lives were lost.
In the interim, Trump upped the ante by threatening, via his favorite medium Twitter last week, to destroy 52 Iranian sites, which he himself described as “some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture.” The threat received immediate blowback from both art and cultural authorities around the world and even from the Pentagon, which announced it would not follow the US president’s lead.
On the legal front, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper declared that the country would “follow the laws of armed conflict,” including sparing cultural sites from destruction. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Sara Bronin noted that Trump’s tweet “amounts to an announcement of an intention to commit war crimes.”
As part of the Hague Convention of 1907, signed by the United States among others, the signatories agreed that “necessary steps must be taken” to spare “buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected,” Bronin pointed out. The Geneva Convention likewise renders unlawful “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.”
Beyond the legal and moral constraints to this dastardly plan, however, lies the bigger implications that the loss of cultural treasures in Iran and elsewhere would mean to humanity in general. Contrary to Trump’s assertion that the targeted sites are just “important to Iran and the Iranian culture,” these great monuments, buildings and artifacts are of value to all peoples of the world, even to those who would not have a chance to behold them for themselves. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s director Max Hollein and CEO Daniel Weiss declared, “the targeting of sites of global cultural heritage is abhorrent to the collective values of our society.” The two, among the most influential cultural figures in the world who rarely venture into politics, reminded the world that “at this challenging time, we must remind ourselves of the global importance of protecting cultural sites—the objects and places by which individuals, communities and nations connect to their history and heritage.” Today’s leaders, they pleaded, must protect “the precious legacy of generations before us, as it is from these shared places of cultural heritage that we gain the wisdom to secure safe and better futures.”
In the movie “Monuments Men,” about a small team of American and British conservators and art authorities who battled to protect for posterity stolen works of art by the Nazis, the team leader is asked by the US president if the rescued works of art were worth the lives of his team members. The team leader, portrayed by George Clooney, gives his answer as he views a luminous painting of the Virgin Mary decades later with his grandson. Gazing lovingly at the precious work of art, he says quietly: “Yes, it was worth it.” (Unfortunately for the Philippines, the solicitous zeal displayed by America for Western art and culture did not extend to protecting and preserving Old Manila, which was reduced to rubble in the last days of World War II.)
The United States will be compounding its sins and acts of aggression against the world if Trump ever gets to carry out his criminal plan against Iran’s cultural sites. The assassination of Soleimani itself is already viewed by many American citizens and US allies as an illegal, unwarranted act, and seen as a possible “wag the dog” ploy by a president under impeachment by the US Congress and facing difficult reelection. And while Iran may not also be spotless—Canada and the United Kingdom are charging that it had shot down the civilian Ukrainian airliner that crashed in Tehran, killing all 176 passengers—the monuments and cultural patrimony of that nation, and of every other nation for that matter, should be spared from deliberate obliteration.
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