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Trump backtracks on threats to attack cultural sites in Iran

Defense Secretary Esper said 'the U.S. is not seeking a war with Iran.' Esper told reporters, 'but, we are prepared to finish one.'
Credit: AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON — President Trump seemed to back away Tuesday from his earlier threat that Iranian cultural sites could be attacked by the U.S. if Iran retaliated against the U.S. after the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. 

Tuesday Trump said, “I like to obey the law.” As the Associated Press points out, targeting cultural sites is a war crime. During comments in the Oval Office, Trump told reporters, “think of it,” the president said, “they kill our people. They blow up our people. And then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions?” Trump added, “If Iran does anything they shouldn’t be doing, they are going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly.” 

Over the weekend the U.S. president tweeted comments referencing 52 targets across Iran that the U.S. would attack if Iran retaliated, saying that some are “important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, "about the appropriateness of targets, I want to associate myself with the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State with regard to the appropriateness of cultural sites being targeted, that is not appropriate." 

In a Reuters report Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied that President Trump said the U.S. would target Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliated for the killing of military commander Qassem Soleimani by the U.S. During an interview on Fox News, Pompeo said, “President Trump didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site - read what he said." 

The Department of Defense released a report Tuesday highlighting statements made by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a Pentagon press conference. 

Esper said, "as we defend our people and interests, let me reiterate, the U.S. is not seeking a war with Iran." Esper told reporters, "but we are prepared to finish one. We are seeking a diplomatic solution, but first this will require Iran to de-escalate. It will require the regime to come to the table with the goal of preventing further bloodshed. And it will require them to cease their malign activities throughout the region." 

Credit: AP
In this image from video, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper talks to the press on Iran and Iraq, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, at the Pentagon in Washington. (divids via AP)

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Esper said that Iran has to "message us" to "sit down and talk without precondition," calling it a "big off ramp sitting in front of Tehran right now."

Esper said that the U.S. military is maintaining a readiness to respond to Iranian aggression. The DoD say commanders on the ground in the region are continuing to "re-position and bolster" forces "as necessary to protect" U.S. interests, facilities and people. 

The Secretary of Defense told reporters Tuesday that the United States is not leaving Iraq.