President Trump defended on Tuesday the U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani – arguing that it “saved lives” – while also appearing to walk back his controversial threat to target cultural sites in Iran if the Islamic republic retaliated for the attack.
Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that his decision saved American lives and that members of Congress will be briefed on the reasons for the U.S. attack.
“We saved a lot of lives,” Trump said. “They were planning something.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was clear that Soleimani was continuing his efforts to build a network of activities “that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans.”
Trump also noted that he was “okay with” with following the international law prohibiting the destruction of cultural sites, but he also expressed skepticism about the rule and questioned why Iran is “allowed to blow up everything that we have and there’s nothing that stops them.”
“They’re allowed to kill our people, they’re allowed to maim our people, they’re allowed to blow up everything that we have and there’s nothing that stops them,” Trump said. “And we are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage.”
“And you know? If that’s what the law is – I like to obey the law,” he added. “But think of it, they kill our people, they blow up our people, but then we have to be very gentle with [their] cultural institutions.”
Trump said: “I’m okay with it. It’s okay with me.”
The 1954 Hague Convention says nations must “take all possible steps” to protect cultural property and shall refrain “from any act of hostility, directed against such property.” It also says nations must not use cultural sites for any threatening purposes that would make such locations a military target.
Trump had previously mentioned targeting Iranian cultural sites after leaders in Tehran promised “harsh revenge” for the killing Soleimani.
“We have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD,” Trump tweeted on Saturday.
Numerous senior administration officials quickly moved to distance themselves from the president’s comments, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper saying on Monday that the U.S. will “follow the laws of armed conflict.” When asked if that ruled out targeting cultural sites, Esper said pointedly, “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”
Ahead of Esper’s comments, other administration officials tried to make clear that the U.S. would follow the law without directly contradicting the president.
Pompeo on Sunday said that any U.S. military strikes inside Iran would be legal.
“We’ll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.