The White House is facing resistance to a plan to again designate Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization, following fierce pushback from opponents who warned that the move could precipitate a collapse of Yemen’s economy and accelerate the region’s poorest country’s descent into famine.
The Trump administration first slapped the designation on the Houthis in its final days in office last year; the Biden administration subsequently lifted it on humanitarian grounds. Since then, President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy team has grown fed up with the Houthis as peace talks to end Yemen’s nearly eight-year-long civil war stall and the rebels ramp up drone and missile attacks against U.S. partners in the region. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have all pushed the Biden administration to reverse the president’s decision a year ago and add the Houthis back to the U.S. terrorist blacklist.
The White House’s top Middle East official, Brett McGurk, led the drive for imposing the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation, but the plan encountered pushback from other U.S. officials, including in a White House meeting of national security deputies on Feb. 4—one of a number of interagency meetings on the matter. Officials who oppose the plan fear it would inflict excessive hardship on Yemeni civilians, according to U.S. and humanitarian officials familiar with internal deliberations. The deputies decided to reexamine the initiative and to determine whether there were other means, including imposition of targeted individual sanctions on Houthi officials, that could be taken without disrupting vital imports of food, medicines, and other essentials into Yemen.
Top United Nations envoys, some officials at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, and private importers delivering supplies to Yemen also advocated for the White House to scrap the plan, according to officials familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council declined to comment for the story, instead referring Foreign Policy to Biden’s public remarks on Jan. 19 saying an FTO designation was “under consideration.”
On Feb. 8, the U.N.’s top relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, who previously served as the U.N.’s special envoy to Yemen, pleaded with McGurk to reconsider plans to move forward with the designation, citing the destructive impact it would have on the import of life-saving supplies into Yemen. During that meeting, McGurk assured Griffiths that the United States was putting the plan on hold for now, according to officials briefed on the meeting. McGurk added that Washington wanted to continue discussions with the U.N. over the impact that punitive measures against the Houthis would have on humanitarian conditions in Yemen.
This story is based on interviews with seven U.S. officials, foreign diplomats, and humanitarian workers involved in policy on the Yemen war, as well as confidential U.N. documents outlining debates over the matter.
The heated, weekslong internal deliberations in Washington and New York highlighted the challenges of sanctioning terrorists or other rogue militant groups without inflicting suffering on innocent civilians. In Yemen, the U.N. reports that the Houthis administer territory that houses at least 60 percent of Yemen’s population, including the capital, Sanaa.
It also reflects mounting frustration among top White House officials within the Biden administration, including McGurk, after a series of missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia and the UAE that both governments and Washington attributed to the Houthis. Compounding those frustrations: Biden’s yearlong effort to revive peace talks between the internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels—led by Biden’s appointed envoy for the conflict, seasoned diplomat and regional expert Tim Lenderking—have foundered despite a year of painstaking diplomacy.
“Nothing really has happened,” said Khaled Alyemany, former foreign minister of Yemen, in regards to peace talks. “The administration has realized that they don’t have a lot [of] access to the Houthis, so they don’t have the possibility to negotiate with the Houthis and help parties come to the table of negotiations.”
Alyemany blamed Houthi intransigence for the stalled peace talks and said an FTO designation could help add pressure to bring them back to the negotiating table.