The Biden administration removed the Houthi rebels (Ansar Allah) in Yemen from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations on Feb. 16 after they were added to the list by the previous administration in January, shortly before the end of former President Donald Trump’s term in office.

U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced on Feb. 12 that the change was made “in recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. We have listened to warnings from the United Nations, humanitarian groups and bipartisan members of Congress, among others, that the designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel.”

The new policy took effect just days later.

However, the U.S. government decided to maintain the sanctions on Houthi leaders Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abdul Khalid al-Din al-Houthi, Abd Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim, stating: “[Because of] acts that threaten the peace, security, or stability of Yemen. We will continue to closely monitor the activities of Ansar Allah and its leaders and are actively identifying additional targets for designation, especially those responsible for explosive boat attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and UAV and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia.

On Feb. 16, the State Department issued another statement, calling on the Houthis “to halt their advance on Marib and cease all military operations and turn to negotiations. The Houthis’ assault on Marib is the action of a group not committed to peace or to ending the war afflicting the people of Yemen.”

Marib is the capital of Marib Province (120 kilometers [74.5 miles] east of the capital Sanaa) and is controlled by the “legitimate government of Yemen,” according to the State Department. About one million refugees are located in Marib, one of the focal points of Yemen’s humanitarian crises.

The announcements barely mentioned Iran’s involvement and direct responsibility for continuing the conflict in Yemen and its longstanding support for the Houthi rebels. (At the end of Secretary Blinken’s statement, he said: “We remain committed to helping U.S. partners in the Gulf defend themselves, including against threats arising from Yemen, many of which are carried out with the support of Iran.”

In recent years, and more so after the crisis in Yemen began, Iran transferred a variety of weapons to the Houthi rebels’ ground, maritime and air sectors the manufacturing know-how and instructors (including Lebanese Hezbollah members) for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Yemen is an important front for Iran’s campaign against Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations, as well as the launching pad for a range of weapons, including GPS-guided armed drones (UAVs), remote-controlled Water-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (RC-WBIED), cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and rockets fired at Saudi and United Arab Emirates territories.

Weaponized and intelligence-gathering UAVs have been used increasingly by the Houthis in operations against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and civilian, critical and oil infrastructures in Saudi Arabia.

Yemen serves as Iran’s largest testing ground for the practical-operational examination of a variety of weapons, such as sniper rifles, IEDs, rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons, missiles, rockets and drones (intelligence-gathering and attack), all as part of its ongoing examination of the asymmetrical fighting strategy that it is constantly developing against the United States and Israel. It should be noted that sources in Yemen have also threatened to attack Israeli territory.

Just minutes after Blinken tweeted about the decision to remove the Houthi rebels from the list of terrorist organizations, a Houthi military figure posted a statement that Ansar Allah successfully attacked a sensitive military target at the Abha International Airport (southwestern Saudi Arabia) and its headquarters in the Khamis Mushayt region, launching three Qasef-2K and Samad-3 drones, which “hit the targets with great precision.”

A civilian plane was also hit in the attack on Abha Airport. On Feb. 15, the Houthis returned and attacked the airports of Abha and Jeddah in a similar fashion, stressing that the circle of fire had been “expanded” against “Saudi depth.” (Shortly after a U.S. announcement on the lifting of the sanctions list, the State Department held the Houthis responsible for the Saudi attack.)

The Qasef-2K is a copy of the Iranian Ababil drone, which is equipped with a warhead of about 30 kg (66 lb). The Samad-3 drones were named after Houthi leader Salah al-Samad, who was killed in an Arab coalition air raid in April 2018. In September of that year, a Houthi drone was fired at the Dubai International Airport “in light of the UAE’s involvement in the military activity of the Arab coalition in Yemen.” The Samad-3 has a range of 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles).

The Keyhan newspaper, which reflects the Iranian Supreme Leader’s positions, wrote on Feb. 14 and 16 that the airstrikes were carried out in response “to Saudi Arabia’s continued aggression against Yemen.” Iran’s media echoes the announcements of the Houthi military and political spokespersons, and serves as one of the Houthis’ main propaganda trumpeters.

As part of the struggle with Saudi Arabia for regional influence over Muslim and Arab public opinion, the newspaper also quoted Mohammad Ali Al-Houthi, spokesman for Yemen’s Houthi Supreme Council, who warned the Yemeni army and fighters that the Houthis would continue their attacks deep into Saudi Arabia and its regional allies as long as they continued to attack Yemen.

Iran has an interest in continuing the fighting in Yemen, which, since the Saudi-led Arab coalition forces were sent to the country, has not led to any substantial change in the situation on the ground. The Houthis continue to control most of the territory that they have captured, including the important Red Sea port city of Al-Hudaydah and the capital, Sanaa. Beyond testing various weapons, the fighting allows Iran to continuously exhaust and attrite Saudi Arabia, its sworn Sunni rival.

The U.S. decision to remove the Houthis from the terror list, and halt some Saudi military aid used to attack Houthi targets in Yemen with U.S.-made precision-guided munitions, plays into Iran’s hands at the sensitive timing of the possibility of an American return to the nuclear agreement.

The decision raises doubt about the seriousness of U.S. policy statements to “expand and strengthen” the Iran deal to address the issues of ballistic missiles and Iran’s “destabilizing actions in country after country”—two key issues in which Iran “specializes” and which it “exports” Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

A test for the Biden administration in Iraq, as well

To illustrate the depth of Iran’s dilemma for America’s reintroduced policy in the region, pro-Iranian Iraqi Shi’ite militia linked to Hezbollah-Iraq—Saraya Awlia al-Dam—claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Erbil Airport and the adjacent U.S. military base on Feb. 16.

Fragments at the target indicate that 24 Fajr-1 (107 mm) Iranian-made rockets were fired. The U.S. secretary of state denounced the “outrageous attack” in which a civilian contractor was killed, and a U.S. service member and five more contractors were injured. Blinken acknowledged that, in the past, Shi’ite militias under Iran’s control carried out similar attacks in Iraq, “but for now it is too early to determine who is behind the attack,” and “the incident is under investigation.”

It is possible that the action is another part of the pressure being exerted by Iran on the United States in the region, and it puts the American administration to its first serious test regarding its willingness to use force against Iran and its allies in the area, alongside its intention to return to the framework of the nuclear agreement.

IDF Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.

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