Boris Johnson is right to distance himself from Donald Trump’s threat to destroy important Iranian cultural sites.
In May 2015, Isis seized control of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and set about destroying some of the best-preserved ruins such as the 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin. The 81-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded outside a nearby museum after refusing to collaborate.
Such actions are a breach of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. It was adopted after serious damage was caused to ancient and other significant sites during the Second World War with the signatories saying that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world”.
Donald Trump’s recent, repeated comments about destroying cultural sites in Iran if it retaliates over his decision to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Suleimani should be viewed in this context.
Even if the oppressive regime in Tehran was guilty of the worst atrocity imaginable, destroying an ancient site that has survived for thousands of years would not be a suitable response. Trump’s threat to attack sites “important to Iran and the Iranian culture” was also a threat to attack sites of importance to humanity itself.
Iran’s current rulers will not last forever but, once lost, ancient ruins such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, cannot truly be replaced. And archaeologists or any other staff working at such sites are not legitimate military targets.
So it was a considerable relief when Boris Johnson’s official spokesman – without specifically criticising Trump – appeared to distance the UK from the US President’s remarks by pointing to the Hague convention. Another encouraging sign was the issuing of a joint statement on Iran by the Prime Minister, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Despite the UK’s impending divorce from the EU, it is in our national interest to remain firmly allied with the liberal democracies of Europe.
However, it is also in the UK’s interest to remain close to the US. The challenge for UK foreign policy is to maintain the ‘special relationship’ while avoiding following Trump if he presses ahead with actions that would bring lasting and historic shame on America.