The United Nations’ cultural agency has called for respecting international conventions on the protection of cultural property amid US President Donals Trump’s threat to attack Iran’s cultural sites.

The call from the head of the Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Audrey Azoulay, came in response to Trump’s threat on Saturday to attack 52 sites in Iran, including cultural icons, if Tehran were to retaliate over the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a US airstrike on Friday.

“We have targeted 52 Iranian sites, some at a very high level and important to Iran and Iranian culture,” Trump tweeted.

On Monday, Audrey Azoulay met with Iranian Ambassador to UNESCO, Ahmad Jalali, in Paris to address the situation in the Middle East and threats against its heritage, according to a statement released by the agency.

The UNESCO chief recalled that both the US and Iran had signed conventions to protect cultural property in case of conflict and world heritage that meant that they could not “deliberately” take any measures to damage the cultural and natural heritage of other signatory countries.

She also pointed out that UN Security Council Resolution 2347, which was adopted unanimously in 2017, condemns acts of destruction of cultural heritage.

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper has sought to douse an international outcry by ruling out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran escalates further, despite President Trump’s threat to destroy some of the country’s treasured icons.

Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president, who insisted such places would be legitimate targets. Trump’s threats generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting American military leaders who have made a career of upholding the laws of war.

“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper said at a news briefing at the Pentagon when asked if cultural sites would be targeted as the president had suggested over the weekend.

When a reporter asked if that meant “no” because the laws of war prohibit targeting cultural sites, Esper agreed. “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

In October 2017, the US announced its withdrawal from UNESCO, claiming that it needed to be reformed as the agency was biased against Israel.