The Biden administration formally went ahead Friday with revoking the State Department’s terrorist designations of Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, citing concern about the humanitarian disaster gripping the Mideast nation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the designations, which the Trump administration issued against the Houthis in its final days in office, needed to be removed because having them in place could hamper the movement of desperately needed basic goods and foreign assistance to innocent Yemenis.
“The revocations are intended to ensure that relevant U.S. policies do not impede assistance to those already suffering what has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement. “By focusing on alleviating the humanitarian situation in Yemen, we hope the Yemeni parties can also focus on engaging in dialogue.”
Friday’s announcement underscores the shifting dynamics around the proxy war that has been playing out for years in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with peripheral involvement by others including the United States and the United Arab Emirates, which have both been aligned with the Saudi side of the conflict.
The development comes roughly a week after President Biden announced an end to Washington’s controversial support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign targeting the Houthis.
It remains to be seen how Iran will respond to the moves being made by the Biden administration, which has signaled an interest in thawing relations with Tehran, following a dramatic ratcheting up of pressure on the Islamic republic by the Trump administration.
The Associated Press has noted that it was the Obama administration in 2015 that first gave approval to Saudi Arabia leading a cross-border air campaign targeting the Houthis, who were seizing ever more territory at the time in Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa. The Houthis have since launched multiple drone and missile strikes deep into Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials say the Saudi-led campaign has entrenched Iran’s role in the conflict, on the side of the Houthis.
U.S. targeting assistance to Saudi Arabia‘s command and control was supposed to minimize civilian casualties in the Saudi-led airstrikes, the AP has noted. But strikes hav killed numerous Yemeni civilians, including schoolboys on a bus and fishermen in their boats. Survivors have displayed fragments showing the bombs to be American-made.
While that hangs in the backdrop, some hawkish Republican lawmakers accuse the Biden administration of turning soft on Iran, which has been designated by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, says the Houthis are directly backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). “The Houthi rebels are armed and trained by Iran’s overseas terror corps, the IRGC and Hezbollah,” Mr. Cotton said in a statement last week after the Biden administration alerted Congress of its plan to revoke the Trump administration’s terrorist designations against the Houthis.
“They fire missiles at civilians and American sailors while chanting ‘Death to America.’ And they’ve plunged Yemen into a protracted war that has immiserated the Yemeni people,” Mr. Cotton said. “If that’s not terrorism, I don’t know what is.”
Many Democrats, however, argue the situation in Yemen is nuanced and complicated, and that black and white terrorist designations will only worsen what is already the world’s most devastating humanitarian crisis that the United Nations says has killed more than 230,000 people in recent years, including thousands of children.
Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, has praised the Biden administration‘s decision to revoke the Houthi terrorist designation, saying in a statement last week that the designation “did not impact the Houthis in any practical way, but it stopped food and other critical aid from being delivered inside Yemen and would have prevented effective political negotiation” that could end the conflict in the nation.
“Reversing the designation is an important decision that will save lives,” Mr. Murphy claimed.
Some Republicans have appeared to agree, but have cautioned the Biden administration to tread carefully with regard to the Houthis.
“The Yemeni civil war has caused significant death and suffering, for which the Iran-aligned Houthis bear significant responsibility,” House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Republican Rep. Michael McCaul and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Sen. Jim Risch said in a joint statement last week.
“We strongly urge the Biden Administration to ensure the revocation of the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation be paired with significant, targeted pressure on the Houthis,” said Messrs. McCaul and Risch, of Texas and Idaho respectively. “We should not let the Houthis believe they have been given a free pass for their violent actions.”
Mr. Blinken sought to address such concerns in his statement Friday on the Houthi rebel group, which the Biden administration refers to as Ansarallah.
“The United States remains clear-eyed about Ansarallah’s malign actions, and aggression, including taking control of large areas of Yemen by force, attacking U.S. partners in the Gulf, kidnapping and torturing citizens of the United States and many of our allies,” the secretary of state said.
“We will continue to closely monitor the activities of Ansarallah and its leaders and are actively identifying additional targets for designation, especially those responsible for explosive boat attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and UAV and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Blinken added. “The United States will also continue to support the implementation of UN sanctions imposed on members of Ansarallah and will continue to call attention to the group’s destabilizing activity and pressure the group to change its behavior.”