Pompeo to designate Yemen's Houthis as foreign terror group

What are the ramifications of a last-minute decision before the secretary of state leaves office?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses a news conference at the State Department in Washington, US, April 7, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses a news conference at the State Department in Washington, US, April 7, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leaving office soon. He is also leaving behind a long legacy as one of the stalwarts of the Trump era. The former head of the CIA has been a key figure and powerful secretary of state. He has used that office to confront Iran and Iran’s allies and minions across the Middle East. Now he has designated the Houthis in Yemen as a terror group. This has regional ramifications.
Pompeo has also sought to use his final days in office to go after more Iranian allies. The US targeted Falih al-Fayyadh for sanctions last week, the head of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, a group of mostly Shi’ite militias that are close to Iran and receive Iraqi government salaries. Fayyadh’s role has been known for years and the US appeared to accuse him of aiding the militias during an attack on the US embassy in the first days of 2020. Yet he was not designated until now.
Now Pompeo has also gone after the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a group called Ansar Allah. The group controls large swaths of Yemen and has threatened Aden, a key port city, as well as targeting government officials. Yemen’s embattled government is backed by Saudi Arabia, who recently reconciled with Qatar. The Houthis are backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia has become embroiled in the Yemen morass since 2015 by providing airstrikes and forces to counter the Houthis.
Riyadh’s role has led to accusations that it is at fault for the suffering in Yemen. It’s not entirely clear if Saudi Arabia is actually at fault. The Houthis are a vicious group whose official slogan is “Allah is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” This is a group based on antisemitism and genocidal Jew hatred. The last Jews of Yemen have been forced to flee, ending thousands of years of diversity in Yemen.
However, most Western governments, because they generally overlook the genocidal antisemitism of militant Islamist groups, give the Houthis a pass. The US has now said the Houthis are terrorists. For the last several years Israel has raised alarms about potential threats from the Houthis. However, those have not materialized yet. Instead, the Houthis use Iranian technology to improve missiles and drones which they use to harass Saudi Arabia. They have fired ballistic missiles hundreds of miles, targeting Riyadh, and have used drones against airports and key energy infrastructure.
Iran uses the Houthis as a kind of proxy against Saudi Arabia and as a test bed for its rockets and drones. Iran’s message is clear: If the Houthis, who are poor and under siege, can do this with our technology, anyone can.
The US decision to target the Houthis is late in coming because a new US administration is coming into office. The administration of President-elect Joe Biden is thought to be critical of Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen. That means that the attempt to lock the US in to confronting the Houthis likely will be more rhetoric than substance. This has often been a problem with Washington’s policies over the last years. There are sanctions, but some of the rhetoric doesn’t come to pass. Iran knows this and has sought to wait out the Trump administration. Paying lip service, the US now says it will be more open to working with Iran.
Again, that is years too late to have an impact. The US didn’t have a clear strategy with regards to the Houthis. The US has supported the Saudi role. The US is also selling Riyadh masses of weapons. In addition, the US Navy interdicted Iranian weapons being sent to the Houthis. In Washington, the US established the Iran Materials Display, called the “petting zoo” by insiders, it showed off Iranian weapons sent to the Houthis. Foreign diplomats and others used to be taken by the US administration to pet the missiles and drones and weapons kept at the display. In December 2017 US Ambassador to Iran Nikki Haley showed off an Iranian ballistic missile fired by Houthis. It was supposed to be a “smoking gun” showing Iran’s role. But most countries shrugged at this.
Evidence clearly links Iran to illegal weapons supplies to the Houthis, but most Western states don’t care. In addition Iran has been developing its ballistic missiles, which the US said should be in any new Iran deal. Iran says it will never give up its new missile technology. Not only that, Iran exports the technology to Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran is now a regional octopus of missile trafficking. The US has not been able to reduce this. Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets, primarily against weapons transfers to Hezbollah or Iranian entrenchment there.
There are concerns about Iran helping Hezbollah with precision guided munitions, and setting up factories. This is part of the same octopus that works with the Houthis. The US has now designated many segments of this octopus as “terrorist” entities. That may impact the Biden administration initially. It will be difficult for the new US administration to simply cancel all of Pompeo’s recent decisions. However the US can just ignore them.
Iran is gambling on the US ignoring its own rhetoric. It remains to be seen if this is the case.