On Sunday, President Donald Trump insisted that Persian cultural sites should not be off limits in his efforts against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper insisted that such attacks are against “the laws of armed conflict.” On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo countered by insisting that no one had damaged Persian culture more than the Islamic Republic itself.
Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif repeated the claim that attacking Persian cultural sites would be a “war crime.”
“Suddenly [Zarif] cares about Persian culture,” Pompeo shot back. “No one has damaged Persian culture more than the Islamic Republic — disrespecting Cyrus and holidays like Nowruz, prohibiting dancing, and putting an end to religious tolerance. Iran’s regime has defiled everything Iranians hold dear.”
Suddenly @JZarif cares about Persian culture. No one has damaged Persian culture more than the Islamic Republic — disrespecting Cyrus and holidays like Nowruz, prohibiting dancing, and putting an end to religious tolerance. Iran’s regime has defiled everything Iranians hold dear.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 7, 2020
Indeed, the Islamic Revolution in 1979 did considerable damage to many elements of Persian culture dating back millennia.
Persia has a long and proud history, dating back to the ancient Near Eastern kingdom of Elam. During the Achaemenid period of Persian history, the great emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon’s extensive empire, creating a vast network of roads to rule the largest empire in the world at the time. Cyrus famously respected the religions of subject peoples, allowing the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and financing the construction of walls and a new Temple in Jerusalem.
When Muslims first conquered Iran in 650 A.D., they allowed many cultural practices to remain intact. Iran became one of the freest and most modern states in the Middle East, until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
In October 2017, Iranian authorities attempted to prevent people from celebrating Cyrus the Great at his tomb in Pasargadae. This seems oddly fitting, given Cyrus’s record on religious freedom and modern Iran’s brutal repression of any faith besides Shia Islam.
As for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, many in the Islamic Republic have attempted to prevent celebrations of the holiday, condemning its pagan origins. People celebrate Nowruz is celebrated across the world, from Afghanistan to China and India.
As for other elements of Persian culture suppressed by the mullahs, women are not allowed out in public without a headscarf. They are also forbidden from dancing in front of men who are not family members, an effective ban on public dancing for women. In fact, women have been arrested both for dancing and for going out in public without a hijab.
Iran’s regime has indeed trampled on many elements of Persian culture that make ethnic Persians proud. None of that would justify an unprovoked U.S. airstrike on Persepolis, of course.
As a student of history, I am appalled at the idea of Trump blowing up an ancient Persian site like Persepolis or the Tomb of Cyrus. However, the president’s remarks are less a direct threat to destroy these important sites and more a statement that Trump will not kowtow to the terrorist regime. If the Ayatollah intended to use Persian cultural sites as a shield in his efforts against the U.S., Trump would call his bluff.
“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,” Trump said aboard Air Force One.
I condemn and abhor the destruction of archaeological sites and the horrific loss of human knowledge entailed in that destruction. Yet Trump’s threat is not an ISIS-style assault on Persian heritage. Rather, he was warning Iran that a culture defense will not save them from American responses to the mullahs’ aggression.
The Islamic Republic has indeed attacked Persian heritage. Iran is trying to claim a moral high ground that it does not deserve. Pompeo was right to deny it to them.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.