Mark D. Wallace is CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Management and Reform.
Cipher Brief Expert Norman T. Roule is the former National Intelligence Manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a senior adviser to UANI.
OPINION — The Biden Administration asserted that its decision to revoke the designation of the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group was driven by a desire to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Yemen and to create political conditions necessary to end the nearly eight-year long war in that country.
The U.S. used the same justification to end offensive support to the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to restore the UN-recognized Yemeni government, living in exile since 2015. In the weeks that followed, the Administration also assigned an experienced and respected diplomat and re-engaged with regional partners.
The speed by which these decisions were implemented suggests that none received a robust interagency review – and none of the developments on the ground indicate America’s recalibration has been or will be successful.
If the Biden Administration’s goal was to change the Houthis’ behavior, the policy has already failed. Far from preventing a humanitarian disaster, the threat to civilians has increased as the Houthis have grown bolder, using the U.S. drawdown to continue its deadly offensive. That’s how terrorist organizations operate, and the decision to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization, after all, was not without merit.
During recent years, the Houthis have launched rockets, ballistic missiles, mortars, explosive drones and boats against neighboring Saudi Arabia and the millions of expatriates who live there. This means civilians are being targeted with advanced Iranian weaponry. Attacks on Saudi civilian targets – any of which could have resulted in American as well as Saudi casualties – and on an oil storage yard at Ras Tanura, one of the world’s biggest offshore oil-loading facilities, followed the Biden Administration’s decision and could be a preview of what may come if the Houthis prevail.
These attacks are in Iran’s interests. In fact, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force commander admitted it offered military support for recent terror attacks – which were followed by an assault on Yemen’s relatively-peaceful Marib region, threatening “two million civilians … with hundreds of thousands potentially forced to flee … with unimaginable humanitarian consequences.” Iran’s Quds Force has provided the Houthis with the funding, training, and technology to carry out many of these attacks since the war began.
The Houthis have also wreaked havoc on Yemen itself using landmines, child soldiers, hostage taking, rape, indiscriminate attacks, and diversion of UN food aid to create one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. Civilians, civilian infrastructure and military forces have all been targeted by the group. Operating from civilian sites and using child soldiers, the Houthis have callously used the Yemeni people themselves as human shields.
Ironically, this behavior fits our own government’s definition of international terrorism.
There are short-term solutions that are possible and long-term goals worth pursuing, but nothing is achievable without robust humanitarian support. In Yemen, Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere – where innocent civilians constantly suffer at the hands of Iranian-backed terror – the U.S. should lead by providing urgent relief, though Yemen is not strictly a U.S. problem.
It is the world’s problem, and international support is required to allow Yemenis to choose their own future. A future filled with peace and opportunity, absent murderous attacks at the behest of Tehran.
Arab leaders need to compel Yemen’s fractious non-Houthi actors to set aside their disagreements for the sake of unity. And though the Houthis continue to ignore UN mediation efforts, lectures from the State Department, unilateral ceasefires and other diplomatic initiatives, UN-led diplomacy must continue.
Sadly, history has shown that the Houthis will agree to political concessions only when faced with battlefield failures.
Targeted military action against the Houthis must continue, and the West should do what it can to ensure that it is effective and conducted in a way to protect Yemen’s civilians. In particular, international security and aid experts need to engage to ensure assistance can be provided while military pressure continues.
The Biden Administration cannot be content with seeing the fighting continue on the battlefields. It can use its economic leverage to combat the Houthis, reduce the influence of its Iranian sponsor and protect a country along the strategic Red Sea and Saudi southern border from falling to the Iranian regime.
Thankfully, there are signs of an evolution in thinking in Washington. As the Iran-backed Houthis continue their violent offensive on Yemen’s Marib province, the U.S.acted by sanctioning Houthi commanders in charge of the Marib operations, Muhammad Abd al-Karim al-Ghamariand Yusuf al-Madani.
It is a small step, but notable, and should be followed by a litany of additional executive and legislative actions to combat the Houthi movement and stop one of the most severe humanitarian crises in modern history.
Finally, the U.S. ought to demand the UN extend conventional arms sanctions against Iran and deny Tehran direct access to IMF funds until the Quds Force has withdrawn from Yemen and Iranian weapons shipments have ceased.
The Biden Administration arrived trumpeting the importance of values. It can best demonstrate these values by ensuring that the Yemeni people receive the same protection and security we would ask for ourselves.
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