The current U.S. State Department is considering designating the Ansar Allah Yemeni movement—more commonly known as the Houthis—as a terrorist group before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. Those in favor of the move view it as part of Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and a blow to Tehran’s regional influence. This seems to emanate from the belief that the Houthis are proxies of Iran, but the facts on the ground suggest otherwise.
The relationship between the Houthis and Iran appears to be misunderstood. While Tehran has provided various types of support to the Houthis and supplied weapons to the rebels, this does not necessarily mean that the Yemeni rebels are proxies of Iran. In 2015, Bernadette Meehan, then a spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, told The Huffington Post, “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen.”
Even with the Iranian support given to the Houthis, Tehran’s influence in Yemen remains marginal.
Even with the Iranian support given to the Houthis, Tehran’s influence in Yemen remains marginal. U.S. intelligence officers have reportedly warned that what is going on in Yemen is civil war rather than a battleground for a regional conflict between Tehran and the Sunni Gulf states.
The Yemeni rebels and Tehran do not share deep ideological or religious bonds and goals. Despite both the Houthis and Iran belonging to the Shiite branch of Islam, the Houthis are Zaydis rather than Twelvers. Practiced mainly in Iran, the Twelvers believe in 12 imams – divinely ordained religious leaders. In contrast, the Zaydis believe in only five imams, just like the Sunnis.
In fact, Zaydism is considered the closest Shiite branch to Sunnism. There are Houthi activists who even said publicly that Iran’s system could not be implemented in Yemen as the Sunnis form a majority in the country.
Without a doubt, the Houthis’ rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, would be pleased if the U.S. designates the Houthis as a terrorist group. However, such a move would have several unfavorable consequences.
In Yemen, 80 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance or protection. Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned on December 10, 2020, that this kind of move by the U.S. threatens humanitarian aid.
“Many Yemenis are already on the brink of starvation, and U.S. actions that would interfere with the work of aid organizations could have catastrophic consequences,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at HRW. “Any designation of the Houthis should at a minimum provide clear and immediate exemptions for humanitarian aid, but millions of lives should not have to depend on that.”
“Many Yemenis are already on the brink of starvation, and U.S. actions that would interfere with the work of aid organizations could have catastrophic consequences.”
As Yemen is already living in what is known as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, this potential U.S. move would only worsen the circumstances of war-torn Yemen.
Indeed, the Trump administration has shown no interest in the plight of the Yemeni population or cared about being on the right side of history. Instead of exploring ways to help the Yemenis, U.S. actions have made their lives more difficult.
In November, senior UN officials told the Security Council that Yemen is teetering again on the brink of famine. Martin Lowcock, the Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the most urgent task in Yemen today is to prevent widespread famine.
The ongoing Yemeni civil war—made much worse with the destructive military interventions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE with U.S. support— has killed over 100,000 people, leaving the country’s economy in shambles. With the coronavirus outbreak, one could imagine that Yemen’s economy further worsened. The potential U.S. move will only hasten Yemen’s deteriorating economic situation.
Robert Malley and Peter Salisbury write in a perspective for The Washington Post: “An FTO [Foreign Terrorist Organization] designation would, indeed, hurt the Houthis’ finances. But it could come at a steep cost for ordinary Yemenis: International businesses that enable global trade — shippers, insurers and bankers — would probably conclude that it isn’t worth the risk to do business, not just in Houthi-controlled areas, but in Yemen as a whole. The fear of criminal liability or economic sanctions could severely curtail financial and trade inflows nationwide, depreciating Yemen’s currency and ratcheting up the price of basic foodstuffs in a country where 60 percent of the population is food-insecure.”
The move would also impact any future U.S.-Houthi talks. Eric Schwarts and Hardin Lang note for Just Security that the U.S. “has played an important diplomatic role at key moments in Yemen’s peace talks, including at comprehensive negotiations in 2016, avoiding a catastrophic UAE-led attack on Hudaydah port in 2018, and in restarting back-channel Saudi-Houthis talks after Saudi oil facilities were bombed in 2019.” By designating the Houthis as a terrorist group, the U.S. could cut communications between Washington and the Yemeni rebels. That, in turn, would prolong the conflict until talks could be resumed.
By designating the Houthis as a terrorist group, the U.S. could cut communications between Washington and the Yemeni rebels.
Such a thing would also make any potential efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to end the war more difficult. “If Trump does designate the Houthis a terrorist organization, that will complicate how Biden will be able to address the Yemen problem. Considering an essential party to the country’s civil war a terrorist organization deprives the United States from negotiating with it, thus lessens its influence in any potential peace deal in the future,” Imad Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC, told Inside Arabia. “Of course, Biden can lift that designation, but that will incur a political cost, both here in the United States where the Houthis are seen as Iran’s tools in Yemen and in the region where Saudi Arabia and its allies will see the move as the U.S. siding against the kingdom. Either way, it is difficult for Biden.”
A Biden administration is not expected to adopt the same approach as Trump on Yemen. “Biden is likely to push for a quick end to the war in Yemen. He will most likely end all American assistance in the war—intelligence sharing and other things that Trump kept providing,” Harb continued. “The Biden Administration will try to help the UN mission in Yemen and [Special Envoy] Martin Griffiths in reaching a compromise, although that compromise has become more difficult today.”
“Biden will also want to lead an international campaign to alleviate the humanitarian disaster in the country. As for Saudi Arabia, Biden is likely to put limits on the use of American weapons to the kingdom so that they are not used in Yemen, otherwise he will have a revolt on his hands from his own Democratic colleagues in Congress,” Harb added.