Riyadh/Washington, January 11
The United States plans to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organisation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said, a move that diplomats and aid groups worry could threaten peace talks and complicate efforts to combat the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
The decision to blacklist the Iran-aligned group, first reported by Reuters hours earlier, comes as the administration of President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take over from the Trump administration on January 20.
A Houthi leader said in a Twitter post that the movement, which has been battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since 2015, reserved the right to respond to any designation.
“The Department of State will notify Congress of my intent to designate Ansar Allah, sometimes referred to as the Houthis, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Pompeo said in a statement late on Sunday.
“I also intend to designate three of Ansar Allah’s leaders, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists”, he said.
The Trump administration has been piling on sanctions related to Iran in recent weeks, prompting some Biden allies and outside analysts to conclude that Trump aides are seeking to make it harder for the incoming administration to re-engage with Iran and rejoin an international nuclear agreement.
“The policy of the Trump administration and its behaviour is terrorist. We reserve the right to respond to any designation issued by the Trump administration or any administration,” the Houthi official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi tweeted.
In Tehran, when asked about the US move, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference: “It is likely that the bankrupt US government might try to further tarnish the United States’ image in its remaining days and poison the American heritage.”
International aid groups and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had warned against a possible designation, saying that Yemen was in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.
Pompeo said the United States planned to put in place measures to reduce the impact of the step on humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen, where 80 per cent of the population is reliant on aid.
There was no immediate comment from Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, which the Houthis ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene a few months later.
Saudi Arabia, which has been targeted by cross-border Houthi missile and drone attacks, has yet to comment.
The UN officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as the country’s suffering is also worsened by an economic and currency collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Norwegian Refugee Council on Monday urged the US government to provide “unambiguous safeguards and guarantees” to ensure that any sanctions did not prevent food, fuel and medicines from being delivered across a country “in the middle of a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe”.
“We call on President-elect Joe Biden to act upon taking office to ensure Yemeni civilians can still receive life-saving aid,” it said in a statement.
Pompeo said with the implementation of these designations on January 19, the US Treasury Department would provide licences that would apply to some humanitarian activities conducted by non-governmental organisations in Yemen and to certain transactions related to exports to Yemen of critical commodities such as food and medicine.
The Treasury Department has previously issued such special licences to humanitarian groups to ship food and medical supplies to heavily sanctioned countries such as Iran and Venezuela.
But international relief officials have said such measures have often failed to unblock the flow of aid because banks and insurance companies are worried about running afoul of the US sanctions.
The designation has been the subject of weeks of fierce debate within the Trump administration and internal disagreements over how to carve out exceptions for aid shipments held up a final decision on the blacklisting, multiple sources told Reuters.
The Houthi group is the de facto authority in northern Yemen and aid agencies have to work with it to deliver assistance. Aid workers and supplies also come in through Houthi-controlled Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port.
“This serves no interest at all,” Ryan Crocker, a retired US ambassador who served in the Middle East, said of the designation.
“The Houthis are an integral part of Yemeni society…This is making a strategic enemy out of a local force that has been part of Yemen for generations.” The Houthis deny being puppets of Iran and say they are fighting a corrupt system. Reuters