WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday announced that he will designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels as a “foreign terrorist organization” as time runs down on the Trump administration. The designation will take effect on Jan. 19, one day before president-elect Joe Biden takes office.
The announcement comes as Pompeo and his top aides rush to complete actions they believe will cement their legacy and the president’s. In addition to the Houthi designation, Pompeo in coming days is also expected to likely re-designate Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism," according to several admininstration officials.
Both moves will impose or re-impose sanctions on the targets and may complicate the incoming Biden administration’s diplomacy. On Saturday Pompeo angered China when he declared restrictions on U.S. diplomatic contacts with Taiwanese officials to be null and void. In addition, Pompeo plans before leaving office on Jan. 20 to draw explicit links between Iran and al-Qaida and hit more Iranian entities with sanctions, the officials said.
The officials were not authorized to discuss the steps publicly because they have not yet been announced and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The administration had been weighing the formal designation of the Houthi rebels as a “foreign terrorist organization” for months. But that effort had been bogged down in internal disagreements over whether sanctions could be effectively enforced without worsening the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Objections from the Treasury Department were apparently overcome last week after certain exemptions to the sanctions allowing for aid work to continue were arranged.
Late Sunday, Pompeo announced that he was proceeding with the designation of the Houthis., also known as Ansarsallah, along with separate terrorist designations of three senior rebel leaders.
“These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region,” he said. “The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping. ”
Consideration of the designation had already prompted complaints from relief organizations that have warned the sanctions could prove catastrophic for efforts to help starving Yemeni civilians who have been caught in the conflict between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia.
“The United States recognizes concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Pompeo said in his statement. “We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.”
Those measures will include the issuance of special licenses by Treasury to allow U.S. assistance to continue to flow to Yemen and for humanitarian organizations to continue to work there, he said.
President Donald Trump has taken a tough line on Cuba and rolled back many of the sanctions that the Obama administration had eased or lifted as part of a broader rapprochement with the communist island. Removing Cuba from the “state sponsors of terrorism” list had been a key component of that effort and re-listing the country has been a long-term goal of Pompeo's.
Such a designation is a legal one and it was not immediately clear on Sunday if all the technical criteria needed to restore Cuba to the list had been met, according to the officials. In removing Cuba from the list, the Obama administration had determined that the country no longer supported international terrorism, but Pompeo is expected to cite Cuban support for Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro as a major justification for the move, the officials said.
Pompeo is also expected to deliver remarks later this week denouncing Iran for its alleged harboring and support for members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. In November, U.S, officials said Iran had been harboring al-Qaida's No. 2, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who had been killed in August by Israeli agents in Iran along with his daughter, the widow of bin Laden's son Hamza bin Laden.
The Trump administration has steadily ratcheted up pressure on Iran since the president withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018 and began to re-impose sanctions that had been eased under the agreement, which aimed to curb Iran's atomic program.
On Saturday, Pompeo announced that he was rescinding all restrictions on contacts between U.S. diplomats and Taiwanese officials. Those restrictions had been in place since the U.S. formally adopted its “one China” policy in 1979 and recognized Beijing after dropping formal diplomatic ties with Taipei.
Pompeo has been at the forefront of the administration's push to go after China for its actions in Taiwan, crackdowns on dissent and human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and the western Xinjiang region, as well as Beijing's disputed maritime claims in the South China Sea.