The United States plans to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization, a move that diplomats and aid groups worry could threaten peace talks and complicate efforts to combat the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
The decision to blacklist the Iran-aligned group, announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, comes as the administration of President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take over from the Trump administration on Jan. 20.
A Houthi leader said in a Twitter post that the movement, which has been battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since 2015, reserved the right to respond to any designation.
“The Department of State will notify Congress of my intent to designate Ansar Allah, sometimes referred to as the Houthis, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Pompeo said in a statement late on Sunday.
“I also intend to designate three of Ansar Allah’s leaders, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists”, he said.
The Trump administration has been piling on sanctions related to Iran in recent weeks, prompting some Biden allies and outside analysts to conclude that Trump aides are seeking to make it harder for the incoming administration to re-engage with Iran and rejoin an international nuclear agreement.
“The policy of the Trump administration and its behaviour is terrorist,” the Houthi official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi tweeted.
“We reserve the right to respond to any designation issued by the Trump administration or any administration.”
In Tehran, when asked about the US move, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference: “It is likely that the bankrupt US government might try to further tarnish the United States’ image in its remaining days and poison the American heritage.”
International aid groups and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had warned against a possible designation, saying that Yemen was in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.
Pompeo said the United States planned to put in place measures to reduce the impact of the step on humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen, where 80% of the population is reliant on aid.
There was no immediate comment from Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, which the Houthis ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene a few months later.
Saudi Arabia, which has been targeted by cross-border Houthi missile and drone attacks, has yet to comment.