Pentagon chief says US will 'follow the laws of armed conflict' after Trump's Iran threats

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump administration officials begin drafting potential Iraq sanctions after Trump threat: report Pence to focus on US Iran policy in speech Pentagon chief says US will ‘follow the laws of armed conflict’ after Trump’s Iran threats MORE on Monday indicated that the U.S. would not launch attacks on Iranian cultural sites, breaking with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump offers Australian PM assistance in fighting widespread fires Trump administration officials begin drafting potential Iraq sanctions after Trump threat: report Pence to focus on US Iran policy in speech MORE‘s threat to target those sites if Iranian-backed forces initiated strikes on Americans or U.S. assets. 

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“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper told Pentagon reporters when asked if he would be willing to target Iranian cultural sites, according to Reuters. 

When asked whether his response meant that targeting such sites would be a war crime, Esper responded, “That’s the laws of armed conflict.” He did not expand on his position or Trump’s threats against Tehran.

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Over the weekend, Trump repeatedly threatened to target Iranian cultural heritage sites should the nation’s forces forces wage an attack on U.S. civilians or military targets in the Middle East. Trump made the threats amid the fallout from his order to launch an airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of the most powerful officials in Iran and the leader of its elite Quds Force. 

The attack could have far-reaching consequences in the Middle East and has been met with a vow of retaliation from Iranian officials. In response, Trump tweeted on Saturday that the U.S. military has targeted 52 Iranian sites, including cultural ones, that it would strike should an attack on Americans occur. 

He doubled down on the threat a day later while dismissing criticism from human rights organizations and legal experts who say such an attack would amount to a war crime. 

“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,” Trump said. 

Deliberately targeting a cultural site is a war crime, according to the 1954 Hague Convention and international law.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPentagon chief says US will ‘follow the laws of armed conflict’ after Trump’s Iran threats Overnight Defense: Washington returns to Iran crisis | Defense chief denies US troops leaving Iraq | House sets vote on Iran war powers | Bolton willing to testify in impeachment trial Graham says he warned Trump against targeting Iranian culture sites MORE (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally in Washington, said Monday that he had communicated concerns to Trump about his threats in a phone call. 

“Cultural sites, religious sites are not lawful targets under the law of war unless they’ve been weaponized by the enemy,” Graham said. “Putting cultural sites on the table as a military target, I think, undercuts what we’re trying to do.” 

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