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5th Jul 2020

EU silent on Trump threat to hit Iran cultural sites

  • Bronze reliefs in Persepolis, the one-time capital of Iran. Donald Trump has threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites, including those important to its culture (Photo: velaia)

The European Commission declined to speak out against threats to target cultural sites in Iran by US president Donald Trump, amid warnings it would constitute a war crime.

A commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels on Monday (6 January) the EU institution will not comment when pressed to take a position on the threat, which Trump had repeated following an earlier tweet over the weekend.

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Peter Stano, who speaks on behalf of the EU's foreign policy chief, instead said diplomacy must remain out of the public domain.

"That is exactly what diplomacy is about: you have to have talks in the meeting rooms or on secure phone lines, not in the public, in order to achieve some results and not in order to comment on the go every single step, every single content of every single conversation or every single threat or every single remark in whatever form in social or other media," he said.

Trump had made the initial threat via twitter following the killing of general Qassem Suleimani in a US drone attack in Baghdad last week, provoking a possible wider regional conflict and war.

He then repeated the threat to target cultural sites again on Sunday.

"They are allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people and we are not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way," Trump said aboard Air Force One following his holiday return from his Florida villa.

Trump's secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared ambivalent when asked by CNN whether such targets were also fair game, after claiming Trump's tweet did not condone attacks on cultural sites.

But a United Nations security council resolution from 2017 condemns any such actions.

A convention protocol signed in Geneva 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."

A similar text has also been signed in The Hague.

The United Nations in 2015 had also issued a statement saying "the deliberate destruction of our common cultural heritage constitutes a war crime and represents an attack on humanity as a whole."

EU sends Iran's foreign minister invite

Constrained by views of the member states, on whose behalf it speaks, the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell must base his public statements after first reaching out to the national capitals.

On Friday, he issued a vague statement calling for restraint from all sides, as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen now scrambles to take a public stand.

In a belated statement on Monday evening (6 January), von der Leyen announced a meeting between Borrell and foreign ministers in order to "activate all diplomatic channels" after Iran abandoned its commitment to limit the enrichment of uranium as part of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It made no mention of the threat to cultural sites.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran, in the fifth step in reducing its commitments, discards the last key component of its operational limitations in the JCPOA, which is the 'limit on the number of centrifuges,'" the Iranian government statement said, according to Iran's Mehr news agency.

Such moves could trigger further sanctions - but the EU says it will only act on Iran's decision based on assessments made by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which oversees the agreement.

The deal, hammered out in 2015 by six nations including the United States, is vital to the European Union.

The EU has already once attempted to salvage the deal following Trump's unilateral withdrawal in May 2018 and his subsequent sanctions against Iran.

Borrell has invited to Brussels Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the deal in an effort to keep it afloat. No date has been set.

"From a European viewpoint, it is important for Iran to return to the nuclear deal," said Von der Leyen, in a statement.

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