There is considerable concern in Jerusalem, the Saudi royal household and the official Yemeni government over the Biden administration overturning the previous administration’s designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization.
The Trump administration’s decision came into force on Jan. 19, the day before Trump left the White House. Not many days passed, and on Feb. 5, the Biden administration revoked the designation of Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization. The decision came after U.S. President Joe Biden’s first foreign-policy speech, in which he announced that he was halting military aid to the Saudi-led military coalition leading the war in Yemen.
A U.S. State Department spokesman announced last weekend that the administration had formally informed Congress of plans to revoke the Houthis’ classification as a terrorist organization, adding that “the decision has nothing to do with our view of the Houthis and their reprehensible conduct, including attacks against civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens.”
He continued: “We are committed to helping Saudi Arabia defend its territory against further such attacks.”
The Trump administration declared the Houthi rebels a terrorist organization and imposed sanctions on the rebel leaders; however, it took into account the position of the United Nations and human-rights organizations and did not impose sanctions that would harm the supply of humanitarian aid, food and medicine to the people of Yemen.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is the most severe in the world: 30 million Yemenis live under siege, and 80 percent of the civilians are at risk of famine because of the war that has been going on for seven years.
U.S. officials say Biden decided on the move out of fear that declaring the Houthis a terrorist organization would undermine efforts to bring peace to Yemen and end the war. The United Nations welcomed the Biden administration’s decision and continues to push for a ceasefire through its special envoy to Yemen.
Another reason is Biden’s concern that failure to revoke the terrorist designation would sabotage his efforts to warm relations with Iran and sign an enhanced nuclear deal with it. The Houthis in Yemen are Iran’s protégés and are equipped with advanced Iranian weapons systems, including ballistic missiles and precision-guided drones.
Designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization and imposing sanctions announced by the Trump administration’s Treasury Department were acts based on reports from the intelligence community. The Biden administration will have to explain to the House of Representatives and the Senate its decision to revoke the classification.
Saudi Arabia is the main target
The Houthi rebels control several provinces in Yemen and have also controlled the capital, Sanaa, since 2014. Starting in 2015, a Saudi-led military coalition has been working to help Yemen’s legitimate government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Saudi Arabia is the country most affected by the Houthis. In September 2019, there was a sizeable attack on Saudi Arabia with precision missiles and drones, for which the Houthis claimed credit. (There is strong evidence that the drones/cruise missiles were not launched by the Houthis from the south, but from Iran in the north.) They attacked Aramco’s oil facilities in the Abqaiq region and caused considerable damage, resulting in a halt in oil output of six percent of global output.
On Jan. 22, the Saudi-led coalition intercepted a guided drone aimed at Riyadh, the Saudi capital. On Feb. 4, Biden announced that the United States would protect Saudi sovereignty and protect it from the forces operating against it and supported by Iran.
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, armed and equipped the Houthi rebels with precision missiles and drones used to attack Saudi Arabia, and threaten Israel as well.
IRGC officer moves to Yemen
In mid-October 2020, senior Quds Force officer Hassan Irlu was appointed Iran’s “ambassador” to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. His arrival in Sanaa was seen as a military and political move, a kind of Iranian recognition of the Houthi “state” in Yemen. The new “ambassador” specializes in the manufacture and launching of ballistic missiles and the production of anti-aircraft missiles.
In this new phase of Iranian activity after the assassination of Soleimani, Iran is attempting to increase control of northern Yemen monitored by Gen. Irlu. His presence and activity in the region pose a danger to Saudi Arabia and Israel, so the Trump administration was quick to announce in December 2020 his inclusion on the international list of terrorist operatives.
This Iranian move is part of Iran’s attempt to recover from the assassination of Soleimani and increase its terrorist activity in the Middle East. Tehran attaches great importance to the frontline in Yemen and wants to directly monitor the fighting and political negotiations conducted by the United Nations envoy to Yemen and the Yemeni government’s covert contacts with Saudi Arabia. Irlu has already earned the title of the “Iranian governor of Sanaa.” He is also apparently directed to plan and carry out attacks on Israeli targets if necessary, making his activity also dangerous for Israel.
Biden’s announcement of an end to support for the Saudi-led military coalition for the war in Yemen is being interpreted in the Arab world as an American admission of the war’s failure. A supply of U.S. weapons did not translate to a Saudi victory. The Arab world’s assessment is that Iran will tie the cessation of war in Yemen to the lifting of sanctions and a return to the original 2015 nuclear deal. Iran controls the Houthi rebels without constraints and now has more leverage over the Biden administration.
Yoni Ben-Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.