US set to designate Iran-backed Houthi militia as terrorist organization

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The Trump administration is set to designate the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization in the coming days, according to sources familiar with the decision.

But a group of senators is trying to push back on the decision, saying that such a move would make it harder to negotiate a peace agreement.

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Nevertheless, the outgoing US administration is expected to continue and even escalate its maximum pressure campaign on Iran and its proxies in its final weeks at the White House.

US officials do not publicly preview sanctions designations, but administration officials have confirmed to Al Arabiya English that the move is “imminent.”

US-based Foreign Policy first reported the anticipated move, although it remains unclear whether the entire militia will be sanctioned or just specific leaders and allies.

A senior US official traveling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week to the Middle East also remained tight-lipped about the decision. But the official told reporters: “We would hope that the Houthis would negotiate in good faith ... with UN representative Martin Griffith towards finding a political solution for the war in Yemen.”

A Yemeni Shia Houthi holds a poster of Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani during a protest in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 6, 2020. (AP)
A Yemeni Shia Houthi holds a poster of Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani during a protest in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 6, 2020. (AP)

Opposition to such a move has been voiced by humanitarian groups who say this might hamper efforts to provide badly-needed aid to areas controlled by the Iran-backed militia.

US Senators Chris Murphy, Todd Young and Chris Coons released a statement criticizing the potential designation because of their belief that it “would almost certainly prevent the critical delivery of food, medical supplies, and other items necessary to combat both COVID-19 and famine.”

Analysts say it could also hamper the private sector, which Yemen heavily depends on for imports.

“The Houthis are so involved in the local economy that it’s hard to be a businessperson or trader without going through a bank or shipping company affiliated with them [Houthis],” said Elana DeLozier, the Rubin Family Fellow in the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But the Trump administration and State Department have been looking at ways to grant exceptions or permission for humanitarian aid to continue flowing into the war-torn country without facing the threat of sanctions.

The Trump administration hopes such a move would pressure the Houthis to negotiate a political settlement with the local government to end the yearslong war.

DeLozier said the administration believes that this designation would “create some leverage” between the Arab coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis in the future.

Early Monday, the Houthis launched a missile at a petroleum products distribution station in Jeddah, causing a fire in a fuel tank. The fire was extinguished, and there were no injuries or casualties due to the attack.

Saudi Arabia has been targeted with dozens of ballistic missile and drone attacks launched by the Houthis since last year. This included a devastating strike on Aramco’s facilities in the country’s east, which temporarily knocked out half the kingdom’s crude output.

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- with AFP

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