The leader of the Houthi militia, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, delivers a speech on a screen to followers during a rally in Sanaa, Oct 26, 2016. (REUTERS)

By Trackpersia

February 25, 2022

Last week, seventeen members of Congress sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden requesting that he would re-designate Iran’s proxy in Yemen, the Houthis, as a terrorist organisation. Renewing the sanctions on the Houthis will have a significant effect on the group’s operational capabilities if the Biden administration implements and enforces these sanctions aggressively.

The former U.S. President Donald Trump administration designated the group, who call themselves ‘Ansar Allah’ a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and a Specially Designed Global Terrorist in January 2021. This designation would entail harsh sanctions on the Houthis.

The designation of a Foreign Terrorist Organisation institutes blocking the assets of the Houthis in American banks including instituting a visa ban. It also institutes extra-territorial application of criminal prohibitions on any American individuals who provide the Houthis with material support.

Equally, if a Specially Designated Global Terrorist is re-designated, it will enable the United States to target financiers of the Houthis to prevent the latter from accessing the U.S. financial system.

The Trump administration would have succeeded in its endeavour to weaken the Houthis if Trump succeeded to secure a second term in office. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once stated that if the Houthis “did not behave like a terrorist organization, we would not designate it as an FTO (a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and SDGT (a Specially Designated Global Terrorist).”

The Trump administration succeeded to strengthen and expand the impacts of the designation of a Special Designated Global Terrorist to include further sanctions on more individuals or entities. If the Biden administration follows in the Trump admiration’s footsteps, a re-designation of both a Foreign Terrorist Organization and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist will more likely be very potent tools of economic statecraft.

It is worth noting that almost immediately after taking office, Biden reversed his predecessor’s decision on the designation of the Houthis, yet he did not dispute the Houthis’ conduct merited designation. Rather, he lifted the designations claiming that the sanctions could pose risk to the provision of humanitarian aid to Yemen.

It appears, however, that the Biden leniency with the Houthis’ aggressive conducts has encouraged the latter to frequently target civilians in the neighbouring countries. Recently, the group has attacked the United Arab Emirates several times, one of these attacks led to the killing of three civilians. The Houthis have also frequently threatened civilian aviation facilities and attacked American citizens.

Over the past few months, Tehran has increasingly resorted to irregular warfare by using its proxies as an important means of expanding its influence in the region. Tehran’s new warfare technique includes resorting to unconventional warfare against the United States and other adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The new Iranian strategy can be attributed to its realisation that it does not enjoy a substantial advantage of military power over others which Tehran considers enemies. Iran’s conventional ground, air and maritime capabilities lag well behind the other states. For example, a significant portion of Iran’s ageing air force inventory consists of U.S.-supplied aircraft that predates the 1979 Islamic Revolution which deposed the Shah under Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership.

The Iranian recent unconventional warfare strategy also obliges Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force to provide the Houthis with training and a growing arsenal of sophisticated weapons and technology for anti-tank guided missiles, sea mines, explosive-laden UAVs, ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned maritime vehicles (UMVs), and other weapons and systems.  Therefore the Quds Force and Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, have played a key role in significantly improving the Houthis’ military capabilities over in the past few years.

Despite the growing threats the Houthis pose to the Gulf states, in particular, Saudi Arabia which the Houthis and its sponsor, the Iranian regime, consider their arch enemy, the Biden administration removed many Patriot missile batteries from the Middle East early this year, on the pretext that they were aimed to confront China and Russia.

Similarly, the Pentagon is said to have been working on pulling approximately eight Patriot antimissile batteries from some regional countries including Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. . Another antimissile system known as a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad system, is said to have been withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, while several jet fighter squadrons assigned to the region have been reduced, according to some American officials.

However, the last week’s congressional letter suggests that the Houthis have caused concerns not only among Democrats such as those in the House of Foreign Affairs Committee such as Gregory Meeks and Senate Foreign Relations Committee such as Chairman Bob Menedez who have expressed concerns over the Houthi’s aggression against the latter’s adversaries in the region. Subsequently, the Biden administration is currently debating whether to reverse its delisting of the Houthis.

Having said that, the Biden administration has faced strong objections against re-designating the Houthis from the United Nations and some humanitarian groups which have suggested that the re-designation of the Houthis would further aggravate the humanitarian situation in Yemen. They claim that such procedures will disrupt aid organisations to reach those in need in Yemen despite there are ample administrative and statutory mechanisms that can be approached to manage the alleged risks and guarantee the flow of humanitarian aid to those in need in the war-torn country.

Accordingly, the Biden administration could simply handle the requests of these humanitarian groups by issuing exemptions to allow aides to continue unobstructed.

Based on the Houthis’ aggressive conduct, the delisting of the Houthis by the Biden administration has not only been a misapplication, but also a major mistake of U.S humanitarian policy. Therefore, Congress should force the Biden administration to issue the re-designations of the Houthis if this administration is not willing to rectify the mistake. This should be implemented through issuing appropriate legislation that mandates the impositions of these sanctions on the Houthis without affecting the flow of humanitarian aid to reach those in need.

Moreover, any humanitarian aid to Yemen should be materialised through launching an aggressive public campaign to highlight the aggressive conducts of the Iranian and Houthi to destabilise the regional states, in particular Saudi Arabia.

Finally, it would be wise if the Iranian regime’s support for the Houthis be more exposed to the public to press the international community such as the United Nations to condemn the Iranian aggressive conduct in the region and to force the Houthis to renounce the support they receive from Tehran.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.