January 22, 2021 | Insight

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead for U.S. Sanctions in Yemen

January 22, 2021 | Insight

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead for U.S. Sanctions in Yemen

Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, has vowed to evaluate the recent designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Pushed through amidst a flurry of sanctions activity during the Trump administration’s last days in office, the designation was a welcome move for Iran hawks, a means of compounding pressure on the Iran-backed group. But aid organizations and House Democrats have opposed the designation on humanitarian grounds, fearing it will negatively impact Yemen’s civilian population, which has been brutalized since the start of the Houthi insurgency in 2014.

Rather than continue permitting the rebels to use the Yemeni population as “human shields” – something U.S. law requires punishing – the Biden administration can use this moment to better calibrate its sanctions policies while addressing divergent domestic concerns. The new administration can broaden general licenses permitting humanitarian assistance to Yemen, while also cracking down on the Houthis’ malign activities.

The Houthis – also known as Ansar Allah (the Helpers of God) – easily meet the State Department’s designation criteria for an FTO. In addition to receiving lethal material assistance from the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran, for their military takeover of Yemen, the Houthis have also reportedly received training from Lebanese Hezbollah, which is also an FTO. Hezbollah fighters have fought and died in service of the Houthi campaign, and the Houthis have even attempted to fundraise for Hezbollah.

In addition to retaining and broadening these ties, the Houthis have fired missiles at targets such as population centers, airports, and oil installations; attacked vessels in the Red Sea; and even employed child soldiers and sieges. Designating the Houthis could punish such behavior and strengthen U.S. counterterrorism policy toward Iran and Yemen.

The designation means Washington can continue to rely on economic, political, and legal means to impede Iran’s revolutionary foreign policy. In Yemen, the designation stigmatizes the Houthis, a move that could help drive the rebels to the negotiating table. Washington could use the designation as a bargaining chip in return for a change in behavior and a comprehensive peace agreement.

In contrast to other Iran-backed groups, such as Shiite militias in Iraq, Yemen’s Houthis began as a local and independent resistance movement, only to be co-opted into the pro-Iran fold. Today, the Houthis are an increasingly important part of a coalition of anti-American actors that Iranian officials term the “Axis of Resistance.” Members of this axis receive Iranian backing, since their local interests and actions align with the Islamic Republic’s broader agenda.

Iran’s support for the Houthi insurgency has evolved as the conflict has dragged on. Motivated by an opportunity to bleed its chief regional rival, Saudi Arabia, as well as by the prospect of gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula and in the critical Bab el-Mandeb Strait along the Red Sea, Iran has increasingly co-opted the Houthi movement. In a short period of time, Iranian officials went from offering the Houthis political support to touting the impact of their training on the rebels. This relationship eventually became overt as both sides formalized and enhanced their ties. In 2019, the Houthis sent an “ambassador” to Tehran, and the Islamic Republic reciprocated.

The Houthis are thus direct beneficiaries of the Islamic Republic’s largesse. Throughout the course of the war, Iran has proliferated or attempted to proliferate a diverse collection of weapons seldom provided to other non-state actors. These include finless short-range ballistic missiles capable of traveling almost 900 kilometers, land-attack cruise missiles, anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, drones, suicide boats, and all manner of light weaponry, such as AK-47s, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, another FTO, is also providing technical assistance to the Houthis on the battlefield, which can help the rebels make the most of the weapons they already have, receive, or capture.

While this weaponry from Tehran may not be enough to defeat the conventionally superior Saudi-led coalition, it can still prevent peace on the coalition’s terms. Despite several interceptions of Iranian arms transfers, which violate a 2015 UN Security Council resolution (2216) that imposed an arms embargo on the Houthis – Tehran continues arming the Yemeni insurgents. Recent reports indicate that Iran has sent the Houthis “suicide drones.” Such backing underscores the necessity of eroding the rebels’ logistical, financial, and material supply lines in order to reach a swift end to the conflict.

Washington’s legitimate use of sanctions must be properly mitigated to offset – and, to the extent possible, avoid – inflaming the existing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, which was labeled by the UN Development Program as being among the Arab world’s “poorest countries.” The United Nations also calls Yemen “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, years of war had devastated Yemen’s infrastructure and economy, putting the country on the cusp of famine and ushering in the world’s worst cholera epidemic. According to Oxfam International, 80 percent of Yemen’s population requires humanitarian assistance, and according to UN data, roughly 45 percent of the country already faces “acute food insecurity.”

The latter percentage could rise to 54 percent – or 16.2 million people – in the first six months of 2021, says the United Nations. With Yemen already importing more than 90 percent of its food, sanctions could impact this trade.

Complicating matters for aid agencies, the majority of Yemenis live in parts of the country that the Houthis control. And despite the terrible acts the Houthis have committed, which include stealing food aid and perpetrating human rights abuses against journalists, international aid workers, women, religious minorities, and other groups, aid agencies nevertheless must liaise with the Houthis to deliver assistance to innocent Yemenis.

In the absence of proper licenses or guarantees, some aid agencies may be wary of working in these areas, mostly out of fear of inadvertently providing “material support” to an FTO, which could trigger “extraterritorial jurisdiction” provisions found in U.S. counterterrorism law.

Given the Houthis’ record of brutality and diplomatic intransigence, the imperative of working to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen could not be greater. In the original State Department press release announcing the FTO designation, the Trump administration stressed it was working to grant waivers and licenses to continue aid operations. According to The Washington Post, however, Yemen’s wartime environment greatly complicates matters. Treasury officials have even claimed that the United States does not have the proper intelligence to aptly consider waivers, prompting fears that Yemen could face famine and that relief will be impeded.

Since then, however, the Treasury Department issued a broad general license permitting activities related to humanitarian aid delivery, democracy support, education, and even environmental protection. Experts believe the new administration can capitalize on such exemptions to expedite the flow of assistance. The Biden administration should also increase the overall dollar value of its assistance to Yemen and urge its international partners to do the same. According to the State Department, in 2020, the United States was the largest provider of humanitarian aid to Yemen, at more than half a billion dollars.

Exemptions should also explicitly permit the already fragile UN-led diplomatic process to end the conflict and ensure that the designation will not prevent UN officials from engaging with the Houthis or undercut UN successes in mediation, such as last October’s prisoner swap.

The designation of the Houthis is reminiscent of previous challenges facing the United States related to terrorist groups that meet the designation threshold but may have a significant role in a future political settlement or coalition government. Washington has contended with this before: The Irish Republican Army, the Taliban, Hamas, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for example, all met the criteria for designation, yet not all were uniformly designated. This reality shows the challenge policymakers face while attempting to marry law, economic sanctions, political and humanitarian considerations, and national security.

If done right, Yemen could serve as a model for how to levy sanctions against non-state actors while facilitating the flow of aid to people who live under their jurisdiction. This can have a lasting impact. With the Yemen war still raging, the focus for the new administration should be to wind down the crisis in a manner that erodes rather than solidifies the Iranian footprint on the Arabian Peninsula while preventing further pain to an already brutalized population.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP), Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP), and Iran Program. For more analysis from Behnam, Varsha, CMPP, CEFP, and the Iran Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Varsha on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD, @FDD_CMPP, @FDD_CEFP, and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Military and Political Power Sanctions and Illicit Finance