The Trump administration designated the Iranian-backed Houthi organization, or Ansar Allah, as both a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) on January 11. While the SDGT designation goes into effect immediately, Congress by law was provided seven days to review the FTO designation before it goes into effect. While the designation was rumored to come for several months, it was nevertheless controversial.
Proponents of the recent move note the obvious need to take concerted action against an Iranian-supported organization that has wreaked havoc in Yemen with Iranian weapons, training, and financing. Critics do not dispute Iran's role but argue that such a move could further aggravate the precarious humanitarian situation in Yemen by making it less likely that aid organizations will be able to reach those in need.
Concerns about the potential humanitarian impact of these designations are not wrong. The situation in Yemen could worsen, but not if it is managed properly by the incoming administration. And while not exactly simple, it is not prohibitive, either.
The case for designating the Houthis is clear. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 gave the secretary of state the authority to designate as FTOs those whose terrorist activities threaten "the security of United States nationals" or the "national defense, foreign relations, or economic interests of the United States." The law applies financial sanctions as well as visa prohibitions or revocations against individuals that are part of entities designated as FTOs. The act also makes it unlawful for any U.S. person or any person otherwise subject to U.S. jurisdiction to provide material support to a terrorist or a foreign terrorist organization, to include the broad extraterritorial application of criminal prohibitions.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration issued Executive Order 13224 for SDGT designations, providing expanded legal authorities for the State Department and Treasury Department to target such individuals and entities. Specifically, the authority enabled the United States to target terrorist financiers that access the U.S. financial system. In 2019, the executive order was expandedto include the application of secondary sanctions on any individual or entity, including businesses, that allow their services to be used by SDGTs, further increasing the risk associated with providing financial services to terrorists.
Taken together, these are two very potent tools of economic statecraft.
Ansar Allah very clearly meets the criteria for designation as both an FTO and an SDGT. With substantial Iranian assistance, the group has repeatedly threatened international shipping, targeted civil aviation facilities (including ones frequently utilized by U.S. citizens), and committed other acts of brutality against the recognized government in Yemen, not to mention the Yemeni people. This warrants its designation as both an FTO and an SDGT.
The role of Iran here also cannot be ignored. Iran is itself a State Sponsor of Terrorism – and the most prolific one in the world, at that. It continues to threaten countries around the region, not to mention U.S. personnel in Iraq and elsewhere. Though the incoming Biden administration continues to consider renewed nuclear diplomacy with the regime in Tehran, it has also promised the countries within missile range of Iran and its proxies that it will address a wide range of destabilizing activities undertaken by the regime and its proxies. The designation of the Houthis is a clear step in that direction.
Properly implemented, the dual designation can increase pressure on the Houthis and their Iranian backers by making it clear to international stakeholders that they are engaged in illicit conduct. Partnering with them in any way could lead to sanctions or steep fines. Concurrently, the Biden administration should proactively ensure, through a transparent bureaucratic and technical process, that humanitarian assistance reaches all Yemenis in need. It should make clear to all its partners and allies that humanitarian assistance programs will continue, even in Houthi-held territories in Yemen.
At the same time, the Biden administration must either take advantage of existing legal exemptions or ensure that broader exemptions are created to allow for the unobstructed flow of humanitarian assistance. For example, the State Department could utilize a legal provision that allows the secretary of state to authorize certain transactions under the FTO statute to facilitate humanitarian and food aid.
Additionally, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control must expeditiously issue the general licenses necessary not only to allow, but also to encourage, humanitarian assistance. Through their contacts in the humanitarian community, key members of Congress could also help amplify this message.
The situation in Yemen is undoubtedly dire. And steps must be taken to ensure that the population does not suffer further. But refusing to identify the role of Iran and its proxies in exacerbating Yemen's misery will not help anyone. America's global leadership begins with speaking truth and taking action to show our allies and partners that we remain committed to a rules-based international order. Iran has violated that order repeatedly over the years. And it continues to do so in Yemen.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow. They both contribute to FDD's Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and Iran Program. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JSchanzer.