When American archaeologists, heritage lovers and many leaders had reacted vociferously against the destruction of 1,700-year-old sandstone statues of Buddha by Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, they had never expected a day would come when they had to use similar outrageous words against their own President. Yes, US President Donald Trump’s recent threat to strike Iranian cultural sites has received widespread criticism from various organisation in USA.
For example, National Trust for Historic Preservation has said in a statement “Historic places around the world are part of the cultural heritage that belongs to all of us. We suffer a collective loss when places of cultural significance are destroyed in times of conflict or other disasters…” Society of American Archaeology has also objected to American President’s statement saying that destruction of cultural sites must never be considered as a military objective. World Monuments Fund considered any threat to cultural heritage sites – in Iran or any other country – to be absolutely unacceptable. Most importantly, the US defense secretary has acknowledged that carrying out the commander-in-chief’s threats, which have sparked worldwide condemnation, would contravene “the laws of armed conflict.”
US signatory to World Convention
The US is a signatory of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, adopted in the aftermath of a war during which heritage sites were looted and destroyed on an unimaginable scale. The provisions of the 1954 Convention were supplemented and clarified by two protocols concluded in 1954 and 1999. All three agreements are part of International Humanitarian Law, which, in the form of further agreements, primarily includes provisions defining the permissible means and methods of warfare and aiming at the widest possible protection of persons not involved in the fighting. Further, in 2017, the UN Security Council had unanimously adopted resolution 2347 for the protection of heritage. Resolution 2347 is the first ever resolution adopted by the Security Council to focus on Cultural heritage. The unanimous support to the Resolution reflected a new recognition of the importance of heritage protection for peace and security.
Cultural centres are tourist attractions
In 2003 UNESCO and the deputy head of research for Iran Travel and Tourism Organization (ITTO) had rated Iran among the “10 most touristic countries in the world”. Incidentally, domestic tourism in Iran is one of the largest in the world. The majority of foreign visitors to Iran have been religious pilgrims and tourists visiting cultural splendours. There were 8-9 million tourists from abroad visiting Iran as of 2018. Tourism contributes more than $ 2 billion to national economy and any strikes on cultural sites would have affected its tourism industry which in turn would have further crippled the economy struggling to survive under US imposed sanctions.
But does USA need to strike Iran’s cultural sites to destroy them? Because the Iran’s government over the years is destroying them slowly in the guise of development works anyways.
Iran is home to two dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Persepolis, with its ancient ruins that date to 518 B.C.; the 17th century grand mosque of Isfahan, located in a teeming bazaar; and the Golestan Palace in the heart of Tehran, where the last shah to rule Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was crowned in 1967. Many of the country’s other cultural sites are Shiite shrines, including the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran — the largest mosque in the world.
Oil money & conservation
However, the discovery of oil and consequently the inflow of oil money has changed the face of its heritage and cultural sites. Injecting oil money into the economy before establishing the essential infrastructures of development pushed it farther away from sustainable development, which is meant to respect natural and cultural resources and use them as a driver for further development. Though many may point to period of 1980-88 when Iran was at war with Iraq as the greatest threat to the cultural sites in the country, the reality is that most of the damage was done during the period of peace and that too in the name of development. The numerous dam construction projects all around the country and the urban development plans, such as the metro system in the historic center of Isfahan, are some of the instances when development programs took precedence over conservation.
For example, in Isfahan, the former capital of the Safavid dynasty with an exemplar urban design from the 17th century, the oldest historic square of the city, Atiq Square, was split into two parts by the new and modern streets. Since then, the square became a marginal place in the city’s life. In Kashan, a city situated on the edge of the central desert of Iran, the earthen architecture and organic urban design, created a harmony for defeating hot weather, dry air and lack of water. A modern 60m wide road was constructed exactly in the heart of the historic center by demolishing the historic buildings alongside the road. The new roads, in Kashan and other cities, soon became the important focal point for constructing new buildings and attracting the investors. There are many such examples where conservation was completely ignored in the guise of creating a modern Iran.
During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), cultural and natural heritage in both countries were impacted by the direct and indirect effects of the conflict. During the war funds meant for conservation too was diverted for the purpose of war thus resulting in poor maintenance of sites. Once the war was stopped, development works were undertaken with double speed to make up for the lost time often ignoring the basic principles of conservation and preservation. As a result, during the post war period both natural and cultural resources were ignored by decision makers and planners.
Damn the dams
In recent years, it’s the unprecedented dam construction and also the US sanctions which have crippled the cultural and heritage sites in the country. Many important archaeological sites have been threatened by these dam projects or have been submerged in the lake of the dams. For major part of the last decade the nation was subject sanctions which curtailed its spending power which in turn had affected most of its conservation activities.
Thus, most of the cultural sites of Iran are already under the threat of extinction without America resorting to any air strikes. However, US President’s statement about air strikes of cultural sites and its withdrawal later on has only highlighted the significance of cultural and heritage sites in the eyes of world community. This may also encourage terrorists’ organisation elsewhere to aim at such sites just to infuriate the Western world.