Academics decry Trump’s threat to hit cultural sites

Still distressed with United States President Donald Trump’s threat to target cultural sites of historical significance in Iran, academics and literary figures have warned that carrying them out would result in a loss to civilisation, history, and understanding of the human condition.

Despite the slow settling of dust after the heated exchanges of jibes between Washington and Tehran over recent military and diplomatic escalations, academic figures in both quarters as well as in the region are disturbed by the way cultural sites were deliberately dragged into the conflict.

In the wake of escalated tensions with Iran, the US president warned in his signature style tweets that the US had “targeted 52 Iranian sites” and that some were “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 said, adding that the 52 targets represented the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days after being seized at the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979.

Deliberately destroying cultural heritage is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The president’s inflammatory statement also contravenes the stated aims of the 1954 Hague convention and the protocols of the Geneva conventions of 1949 and 1977.

Trump’s threat drew robust and uniform condemnation from Iranians as well as academics in the West, and from those with knowledge and affection for the rich Persian culture and civilisation.

Ed Liebow, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, told University World News that threatening to target such sites as a diplomatic ploy was unacceptable, and making good on such threats would result in a loss to civilisation, history, and understanding of the human condition.

“The value of these sites is recognised by the US military, which has made a sincere and substantive effort to protect cultural sites elsewhere in the Middle East over the past several decades. Such targeting is generally illegal, and definitely short-sighted, as it will inevitably undermine further diplomatic efforts that aim to reduce the prospect for armed conflict,” he added.

Earlier, in an open letter published in The Guardian on 7 January, academic researchers of Iranian history, archaeology, art and culture, based in national museums and universities across the world, reacted in horror to direct threats against the people of Iran and against their tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Academics among the signatories of the open letter were Sussan Babaie, reader in the arts of Islam and Iran, Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Archil Balakhvantsev, leading research fellow at the Center for the Study of Central Asia, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; Pierfrancesco Callieri, professor of archaeology of pre-Islamic Iran, Università di Bologna, Italy; Matthew P Canepa, professor and Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali presidential chair in art history and archaeology of ancient Iran, University of California, Irvine,US; Bernard O’Kane, professor of Islamic art and architecture, American University in Cairo; Jason Silverman, co-leader, Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires, University of Helsinki; and Gabrielle van den Berg, professor of the cultural history of Iran and central Asia, University of Leiden, the Netherlands.

Curators among the signatories included: Ladan Akbarnia, curator of south Asian and Islamic art, San Diego Museum of Art, California; Francois Bridey, curator of ancient Iran collections, Ancient Near East Department, Musée du Louvre, Paris; Barbara Helwing, director, Vorderasiatisches Museum – Staatliche Museen Berlin; Francesca Leoni, curator of Islamic art, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford; and Mariam Rosser Owen, Middle East curator, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Condemnation demanded

They said: “As academic researchers of Iranian history, archaeology, art and culture, based in national museums and universities across the world, we call on our political representatives to condemn explicitly any statement or action that threatens internationally recognised war crimes against the Iranian people, as well as their cultural heritage.”

Sharing majestic images of an array of cultural sites in Iran, people from different backgrounds have also been promoting the hashtag #IranianCulturalSites to express their annoyance towards the idea of dragging history, culture and art into the ever-changing geostrategic spheres.

Among these sites threatened are at least 24 sites of pre-Islamic and Islamic heritage that are currently designated by UNESCO as being of universal significance. These are imperial monuments from the Bronze Age to the Elamite, Achaemenid, Sasanian, Ilkhanid, Ziyarid, Safavid and Qajar eras; sites of natural beauty such as the traditional Persian gardens of Shiraz (Bagh-e Eram, for example); and Gilan forest and biosphere.

Some voices have likened the US President’s threat to the brazen destruction of the monumental sixth century statues of the Buddhas in neighbouring Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper on 7 January sought to distance the Pentagon from the president’s threat, insisting that the US would follow the laws of armed conflict – international humanitarian law – which rule out targeting cultural sites.

Burzine Waghmar, librarian for South Asia and Indo-Iranian languages, cultural, literary and post-colonial studies at SOAS, University of London, told University World News that Trump is merely ratcheting up the ante in terms of psychological warfare, and would not initiate a Bamyan style attack.

He added that the Iranian regime, during the past 40 years, has not exactly been a conscientious custodian of its heritage. “Consider just one glaring example: the Sivand Dam which, since 2007, has been pushed relentlessly by the regime and even acknowledged by Tehran as submerging some 130 archaeological sites across Fars province.

“And a mention must also be made of the Pasdaran or IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) involved in smuggling of antiquities, an open secret, since 1979 and a point in fact little realised. The illegal spiriting and selling of artefacts, besides arms smuggling and drugs, has allowed the Revolutionary Guards to rake in earnings with impunity.”