Downing Street has said targeting cultural sites in Iran would breach international warfare conventions in an implicit rebuke to Donald Trump for threatening to bomb protected heritage sites.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesman refused to criticise Trump directly but made clear the UK government would not support such a course of action, after the US president said he could target 52 Iranian sites if Iran retaliated over the assassination of Qassem Suleimani – “some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture”.
Trump’s comments amount to threatening a war crime because such action would violate international treaties, but he repeated the threat on Sunday, saying: “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.”
Responding to Trump’s latest comments, Johnson’s spokesman said there were “international conventions in place that prevent the destruction of cultural heritage”, implying the UK does not believe such threats would be carried out.
“You can read the international conventions for yourself. It is the 1954 Hague convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict,” he added.
However, Downing Street was careful not to criticise Trump directly, insisting that Britain’s security partnership with the US remained “very close” despite Johnson not having been informed of Washington’s plan to assassinate Suleimani in advance.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We have a very close security partnership with the United States, we are in regular dialogue at every level.”
Asked if Johnson was convinced the US drone strike was legal, the spokesman said: “States have a right to take action such as this in self-defence and the US have been clear that Suleimani was plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.”
The spokesman also defended Johnson’s failure to make any sort of statement on the assassination for 68 hours while he was holidaying with his partner on the Caribbean island of Mustique.
“The PM was in contact with senior officials and senior ministers throughout the course of Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The government’s position was set out by the foreign secretary,” he said.
The prime minister spoke to Trump, as well as Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, on Sunday. The UK, Germany and France issued a joint statement urging de-escalation and restraint by all parties late on Sunday night.
Johnson also spoke to the Iraqi prime minister on Monday morning, and urged him to allow foreign troops to remain in the country to fight against the threat posed by Islamic State.
“The coalition is in Iraq to protect Iraqis and others from the threat from Daesh [Isis] at the request of the Iraqi government,” the spokesman said. “We urge the Iraqi government to ensure the coalition is able to continue our vital work countering this shared threat.
“The foreign secretary spoke to the Iraqi president and prime minister this weekend. The prime minister is speaking with his Iraqi counterpart today and our ambassador in Baghdad is in touch with political leaders in Iraq to emphasise these points and urge them to ensure we can keep fighting this threat together.”
Johnson will meet senior ministers to discuss the Iran situation later on Monday and hold a meeting of the national security council on Tuesday.
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