Yemen’s Houthis were defiant yesterday after the US moved to brand the Iran-backed rebels as terrorists, a last-minute move in defiance of aid groups who fear it could tip the country into famine.
Unless the US Congress blocks the decision, the Houthis will be blacklisted Tuesday next week — one day before the inauguration of US president-elect Joe Biden, whose aides had hoped to mount a fresh push to end Yemen’s devastating six-year-old war.
“These policies represent a crisis in thinking and are to be condemned, and we have the right to respond,” Huthi political commander Mohamed Ali al-Houthi wrote on Twitter.
“The Yemeni people don’t care about any designation from [US President Donald] Trump’s administration as it is a partner in killing Yemenis and starving them.”
The decision announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could complicate Biden’s promised efforts to restart diplomacy with Iran and to reassess Washington’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, which has led a bloody offensive in its impoverished southern neighbor.
“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 (FTO),” Pompeo said in a statement.
The Trump administration has been piling on sanctions related to Iran in the past few 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.
“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 SDGTs [Specially Designated Global Terrorists],” Pompeo said.
The US planned to put in place measures to reduce the impact of the step on humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen, he added.
Pompeo said that with the implementation of these designations on Tuesday next week, the US Department of the Treasury would provide some licenses that would apply to some humanitarian activities conducted by non-governmental organizations in Yemen, and to certain transactions related to exports to Yemen of critical commodities such as food and medicine.
The treasury department has the power to carve out exceptions by issuing special licenses to humanitarian groups to ship food and medical supplies to heavily sanctioned countries, as it has done with Iran and Venezuela.
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 said.
A Saudi Arabian-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthi group. 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 UN describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80 percent of its people in need of help.
Top UN officials have said that millions of people are facing famine and more money is needed to deliver aid.
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 Sana’a International Airport and the Port of Hodeidah.
“This serves no interest at all,” Ryan Crocker, a retired US ambassador who served in the Middle East, said of the designation. “Are there elements among the Houthis who have been involved in terrorist acts? Sure. Just as with other groups in the Middle East.”
“The Houthis are an integral part of Yemeni society. They always have been. This is making a strategic enemy out of a local force that has been part of Yemen for generations. They are not Iranian pawns,” Crocker said.
In November, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that Yemen was in “imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades,” warning against any unilateral moves as the US threatened to blacklist the Houthis.
A spokesman for Guterres declined to comment on Sunday.
Iran’s mission to the UN in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, international relief officials have said that such measures have often failed to unblock the flow of aid, because banks and insurance companies are worried about running afoul of US sanctions, and that this could also be the case with Yemen.
Additional reporting by AFP
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