Biden’s team should beware of Houthis’ misuse of humanitarian concerns
In the final hours of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Yemen’s Houthi militia as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” and its top leadership as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.”
The designation is notable because it can financially cripple an organization found to be conducting any transaction with the designated entity.
This has caused concern among some UN-backed NGOs as well as officials from the Biden administration, who fear the impact on Yemen's ability to import food for millions of citizens in a country entirely dependent on imports to feed its people.
The Houthis control the main port of Hodeidah which handles food shipments to Yemen. The Houthis’ terrorist designation could deter international NGOs and shipping companies from conducting any transactions involving the port, even for humanitarian purposes.
Donald Trump's team attempted to address those concerns when the terror designation was put into force, saying that special exemptions will be made to ensure that humanitarian supplies are able to get through.
If anything, the designation should offer the Biden team greater leverage over Iran and the Houthis. Allowing the Houthis to use food as a weapon to maintain control over the Yemeni people while also blackmailing the international community will do little to alleviate civilian suffering.
The Houthi leadership has shown scant regard for the well-being of ordinary citizens or Yemen’s food security.
The Houthis’ cross-border attacks, which mainly target civilians, have intensified at the behest of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in recent years. Also, its arsenal, thanks to IRGC training and supplies, has exponentially increased in sophistication. The Yemeni people living under Houthi control are suffering immensely.
Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden's soon to be confirmed secretary of state, has hinted in talks with US lawmakers that he is opposed to the “terrorist” designation. The Biden administration is expected to review the policy and decide whether it will impede humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people.
There are good reasons why the terrorist designation should remain. The Houthis have become inexorably a part of the IRGC's regional terror network. The two are ideologically and operationally joined at the hip.
President Trump rightly designated the IRGC as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” in 2019. The IRGC's external activities and global network are designed to implement Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s strategic vision.
In no way do US national security interests, be it under a Democrat or Republican administration, benefit from the IRGC expanding its influence and control.
If anything, American diplomats and service members will become more vulnerable to unconventional IRGC proxy attacks utilizing a new array of precession weaponry that has proliferated at a rapid pace.
The Houthis have become inexorably a part of the IRGC's regional terror network. The two are ideologically and operationally joined at the hip.
The IRGC launched a military exercise last week with loitering “suicide drones” and cruise missiles, that was meant to be a warning shot across the bows of Gulf countries and the West.
The drones and cruise missile capabilities that Iran has developed over the years are an effective addition to its arsenal that allows it to target with precision military and civilian infrastructure across the Middle East.
Some of those new capabilities could end up in the hands of Houthi commanders, which would be a strategic disaster.
Take for instance the 2019 demonstration of the IRGC's ability to effectively deploy “loitering drones” and cruise missiles in the attack against the Aramco oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia.
The attack itself caused little strategic damage, but the real threat stemmed from the IRGC's ability to both use precision loitering drones and cruise missiles and utilize a proxy's territory to hit critical infrastructure while avoiding direct blame and an all-out war.
Iran never claimed responsibility for the Aramco attack, which likely originated from Iraqi airspace controlled by a Baghdad government unable and unwilling to push back against IRGC activity on its territory as IRGC's proxies capture control over Iraq's security apparatus.
In short, the IRGC was able to both leverage long-range precision strike capability alongside its ability to capture and control an Arab government and its territory for launching covert attacks.
The IRGC will be able to use Yemen as a springboard for similar attacks in the future thanks to the Houthis. Iran will in essence be able to launch suicide drone swarms and cruise missiles from multiple fronts simultaneously, putting US military bases in the Gulf region in its crosshairs.
The IRGC's military strategy is multi-layered and linked with its proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. The Aramco attack was a dress rehearsal for the IRGC's desire to use “loitering drones” and cruise missiles as part of a multi-front, multi-pronged attack from outside its territory.
Just as the IRGC and its slain commander Qassem Soleimani's legacy network of militants in Iraq have given Iran political and military control over Baghdad and a weapons pipeline into Syria and Lebanon, an unchallenged Houthi takeover of Yemen will further extend the range of IRGC arsenal.
Such a turn of events would be a catastrophe for the Yemeni people, while leaving Washington and its allies more vulnerable than ever to attacks emanating from Houthi-controlled territory.
The Biden administration can work with international NGOs to reassure them that food shipments and humanitarian transactions in Hodeidah will be safe from legal repercussions.
Meanwhile, Houthi leaders should be put on notice that their Iran-enabled terror network will face real and lasting consequences and global isolation.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a former defense intelligence officer and Middle East analyst with the Pentagon. He has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and has spent extensive time on the ground in northern Syria. He is now a conflict-zone documentary filmmaker based in the Middle East.