Khameinei Nasrallah Soleimani civilians

Iranian and Hezbollah leaders oppose attacking civilians as Trump threatens to bomb cultural sites

Washington’s top bogeymen, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, called to protect civilians and only hit military targets. Meanwhile, Trump vows to attack Iranian “cultural sites.”

By Ben Norton

If you listened only to the rhetoric of the United States government, you might think that fighters from the Iranian government and Lebanese armed group Hezbollah are bloodthirsty terrorists hellbent on attacking Americans anywhere, from shopping malls in Minneapolis to airports in New York.

But in reality, their leaders have repeatedly called for protecting civilians and retaliating exclusively against military targets. Meanwhile the US commander-in-chief, Donald Trump, has openly threatened to carry out war crimes against Iranian cultural sites.

Donald Trump’s January 3 drone strike killing Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani and major Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis ignited a global firestorm of outrage. This clear act of war took out senior military leaders who were beloved in their respective countries, where they were seen as war heroes for the roles in the defeat of ISIS.

Trump’s attack was immediately denounced by the United Nation’s top expert on extrajudicial executions, special rapporteur Agnes Callamard, who said the assassinations “are most likely unlawful and violate international human rights law.”

Soleimani had in fact been in Baghdad for an Iraqi government-sponsored peace initiative with Saudi Arabia when he was murdered, in a flagrant act of American sabotage of the fledgling regional peace process.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, vowed a major reprisal to the US act of war, pledging to hit back with “severe revenge.” But Tehran and its allies have made it clear in the past and since the assassination of Soleimani that they reject the targeting of civilians in their attacks.

Hezbollah leader: ‘Any harm to US civilians anywhere will only serve Trump’s agenda’

Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is a major ally of Iran whose political movement serves in his country’s elected parliament. In a speech responding to the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis, Nasrallah went to great lengths to stress that civilians must never be intentionally targeted.

“Our goal in the resistance axis has to be the following: … the expulsion of the American military forces from the whole region,” he said.

Nasrallah also made it clear that there is no figure in the US government who can meet the stature of the top Iranian general. “Qassem Soleimani’s shoe is worth more than Trump’s head and the whole US leadership!” he declared.

But the Hezbollah leader was very careful to clarify, “When we are talking about this, of course we don’t at all mean the American people. And I hope this is extremely clear: We don’t mean the American people. We don’t mean American citizens.”

Nasrallah continued, “All across the region there are American citizens — traders, media people, journalists, companies, engineers, and doctors. They cannot be touched. In fact I am saying that any harm to US citizens and civilians anywhere will only serve Trump’s agenda. It would serve Trump’s agenda.”

Iran’s supreme leader: ‘We have no problems with the American people’

Nasrallah is far from the only Iran-aligned leader in the region making the crucial distinction between military and civilian targets.

Back in February, Ali Khamenei explained the intended meaning of the chant “Death to America,” which is popular in Iran. He made it clear that this slogan is aimed at the political class in Washington, not the US public.

US officials “complain and ask, why do Iranians say ‘Death to America’?” the Iranian supreme leader said. “Let me make something clear for US leaders. ‘Death to America’ means death to Trump, John Bolton, and Mike Pompeo. It means death to American rulers.”

“We have no problems with the American people,” Khamenei continued. “‘Death to America’ is about the rulers of America. It’s about the group of people who are currently in charge.”

“As long as America continues its wickedness, the Iranian nation will not abandon ‘Death to America,'” the ayatollah added, in his address to Iranian Air Force officers on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.

Khamenei has long criticized attacks on civilians. Both the current Iranian supreme leader and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have issued fatwas, or religious rulings, against nuclear weapons, deeming them un-Islamic.

Reporter Gareth Porter has noted that Iran’s strong opposition to nuclear and chemical weapons is rooted in the terrible suffering its civilian population endured during the Iran-Iraq War. Throughout the 1980s, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein waged a brutal war on his neighbor in which more than 1 million people were killed, most of whom were Iranians.

Saddam had the firm backing of the US government and other Western European allies, who provided Iraq with chemical weapons, intelligence, and targeting assistance, which he used to gas hundreds of thousands of Iranians.

Iranians have never forgotten these horrors. Thus, Khamenei has been outspoken in his condemnation of nuclear and chemical weapons — especially the United States’ atomic bombing of Japan.

Trump threatens to destroy Iranian civilian cultural sites

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has repeatedly made it clear that he sees civilians as legitimate targets.

On January 4, the US president tweeted threats to carry out explicit war crimes by targeting Iranian cultural sites. His sadistic vows brought to mind some of the most notorious crimes committed Wahhabi extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

“If Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, 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 & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD,” Trump tweeted.

Speaking to reporters the next day, Trump repeated his threat. “We’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way,” he said.

Media outlets quickly pointed out that such attacks are blatantly illegal and clear war crimes under international law.

AFP noted that the 1954 Hague Convention states targeting cultural sites is a war crime, and the UN Security Council (of which the US is a permanent member) passed a resolution in 2017, with unanimous consent, forbidding attacks on historical sites. Ironically, this UN resolution was written in reference to the historical destruction carried out by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

This is far from the first time that Trump has made such threats against civilians. During his presidential campaign in 2015, the Republican leader vowed to kill the family members of militants. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump repeated.

In 2018, Trump reportedly asked intelligence officials why they did not intentionally drone strike the family of a militant.

No matter how much Iran, its military wing, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and its ally in Lebanese Hezbollah emphasize their rejection of the targeting of civilians, the US government insists on classifying both as terrorist organizations. (Much as South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was on Washington’s “terrorist” list until 2008.)

Most of the world has treated the “war on terror” launched by the US after 9/11 with mockery and disgust. Now, as Trump rumbles threats to destroy cultural sites where mosques and treasured antiquities stand, Americans will find it harder than ever to ignore the twisted farce declared in their name.