U.N. Pressures Biden Against Adding Yemen’s Houthi Rebels to Terrorist Blacklist

A return to sanctions would only worsen a humanitarian catastrophe, experts warn.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Yemeni army forces head to stronghold near Marib, Yemen.
Yemeni army forces head to stronghold near Marib, Yemen.
Yemeni army reinforcements arrive to join fighters loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed government on the southern front of Marib, the last remaining government stronghold in northern Yemen, on Nov. 16, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

The White House is facing resistance to a plan to again designate Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization, following fierce pushback from opponents who warned that the move could precipitate a collapse of Yemen’s economy and accelerate the region’s poorest country’s descent into famine.

The Trump administration first slapped the designation on the Houthis in its final days in office last year; the Biden administration subsequently lifted it on humanitarian grounds. Since then, President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy team has grown fed up with the Houthis as peace talks to end Yemen’s nearly eight-year-long civil war stall and the rebels ramp up drone and missile attacks against U.S. partners in the region. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have all pushed the Biden administration to reverse the president’s decision a year ago and add the Houthis back to the U.S. terrorist blacklist.

The White House’s top Middle East official, Brett McGurk, led the drive for imposing the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation, but the plan encountered pushback from other U.S. officials, including in a White House meeting of national security deputies on Feb. 4—one of a number of interagency meetings on the matter. Officials who oppose the plan fear it would inflict excessive hardship on Yemeni civilians, according to U.S. and humanitarian officials familiar with internal deliberations. The deputies decided to reexamine the initiative and to determine whether there were other means, including imposition of targeted individual sanctions on Houthi officials, that could be taken without disrupting vital imports of food, medicines, and other essentials into Yemen.

The White House is facing resistance to a plan to again designate Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization, following fierce pushback from opponents who warned that the move could precipitate a collapse of Yemen’s economy and accelerate the region’s poorest country’s descent into famine.

The Trump administration first slapped the designation on the Houthis in its final days in office last year; the Biden administration subsequently lifted it on humanitarian grounds. Since then, President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy team has grown fed up with the Houthis as peace talks to end Yemen’s nearly eight-year-long civil war stall and the rebels ramp up drone and missile attacks against U.S. partners in the region. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have all pushed the Biden administration to reverse the president’s decision a year ago and add the Houthis back to the U.S. terrorist blacklist.

The White House’s top Middle East official, Brett McGurk, led the drive for imposing the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation, but the plan encountered pushback from other U.S. officials, including in a White House meeting of national security deputies on Feb. 4—one of a number of interagency meetings on the matter. Officials who oppose the plan fear it would inflict excessive hardship on Yemeni civilians, according to U.S. and humanitarian officials familiar with internal deliberations. The deputies decided to reexamine the initiative and to determine whether there were other means, including imposition of targeted individual sanctions on Houthi officials, that could be taken without disrupting vital imports of food, medicines, and other essentials into Yemen.

Top United Nations envoys, some officials at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, and private importers delivering supplies to Yemen also advocated for the White House to scrap the plan, according to officials familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council declined to comment for the story, instead referring Foreign Policy to Biden’s public remarks on Jan. 19 saying an FTO designation was “under consideration.”

On Feb. 8, the U.N.’s top relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, who previously served as the U.N.’s special envoy to Yemen, pleaded with McGurk to reconsider plans to move forward with the designation, citing the destructive impact it would have on the import of life-saving supplies into Yemen. During that meeting, McGurk assured Griffiths that the United States was putting the plan on hold for now, according to officials briefed on the meeting. McGurk added that Washington wanted to continue discussions with the U.N. over the impact that punitive measures against the Houthis would have on humanitarian conditions in Yemen.

This story is based on interviews with seven U.S. officials, foreign diplomats, and humanitarian workers involved in policy on the Yemen war, as well as confidential U.N. documents outlining debates over the matter.

The heated, weekslong internal deliberations in Washington and New York highlighted the challenges of sanctioning terrorists or other rogue militant groups without inflicting suffering on innocent civilians. In Yemen, the U.N. reports that the Houthis administer territory that houses at least 60 percent of Yemen’s population, including the capital, Sanaa.

It also reflects mounting frustration among top White House officials within the Biden administration, including McGurk, after a series of missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia and the UAE that both governments and Washington attributed to the Houthis. Compounding those frustrations: Biden’s yearlong effort to revive peace talks between the internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels—led by Biden’s appointed envoy for the conflict, seasoned diplomat and regional expert Tim Lenderking—have foundered despite a year of painstaking diplomacy.

“Nothing really has happened,” said Khaled Alyemany, former foreign minister of Yemen, in regards to peace talks. “The administration has realized that they don’t have a lot [of] access to the Houthis, so they don’t have the possibility to negotiate with the Houthis and help parties come to the table of negotiations.”

Alyemany blamed Houthi intransigence for the stalled peace talks and said an FTO designation could help add pressure to bring them back to the negotiating table.

Adding the Houthis to the foreign terrorist organization list, overseen by the State Department, would criminalize dealings with the group and make businesses or organizations dealing with them liable to criminal prosecution.

U.S. officials and humanitarian workers who oppose the plan argued to the White House that, despite government exemptions from sanctions for humanitarian groups, an FTO designation would have a chilling effect on humanitarian groups and private companies dispersing sorely needed supplies to Yemen’s embattled civilian population, the bulk of which is on the brink of famine.

Another option the Biden administration is considering, sources said, is listing the Houthis as a specially designated terrorist group, either alongside or in lieu of an FTO label. The former designation is considered a step down from an FTO; it triggers sanctions but, unlike the FTO, does not automatically trigger criminal liability cases. The United States could also target specific leaders of the Houthis with specifically designated terrorist sanctions to increase pressure on the group.

Scott Paul, senior manager for humanitarian policy at Oxfam, warned that companies delivering critical supplies to Yemen such as food and fuel could halt their work for fear of any legal scrutiny an FTO designation could bring, regardless of how many licenses the U.S. government issues to exempt them from sanctions. He warned an FTO designation would have a major effect on Yemen’s anemic economy, already under strain after years of war and propped up by remittances that could dry up from an FTO designation.

Global commodity price increases and unfavorable exchange rates “have pushed the price of goods even further out of reach for most Yemenis,” Paul said. “Food and medicine, which are covered by licenses, will not be available at the same level they are now,” he said. “But the main problem isn’t going to be that aid will go away, it will decline. The main problem will be that the economy is going to crater.”

The war in Yemen, which has pitted the Houthis against a Saudi-led coalition, began in 2014 and has taken a devastating toll on the country’s civilian population. Over 375,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict, and the U.N. says that over 20 million people—around two-thirds of the total population—are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Fighting has largely ground into a stalemate, though violence has spiked in recent weeks. Despite an impasse in peace talks, Alyemany said the only realistic hope for an end to the war is through negotiations, not more fighting. “War is destroying the nation,” he said. “War is not giving any hope for the Yemenis.”

The UAE’s ambassadors to Washington and the U.N. wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last month urging the administration to relist the Houthis as an FTO, arguing it would “help choke off their financial and arms supplies without restricting humanitarian relief for the Yemeni people.” Around the same time, the UAE’s diplomatic mission at the U.N. began circulating a memo to other U.N. missions outlining how an FTO designation could be implemented without interrupting humanitarian access, according to a copy of the memo obtained by Foreign Policy.

Other proponents of redesignating the Houthis as an FTO, including Alyemany and former Trump administration officials, argue that the Houthis have diverted humanitarian supplies to their own fighters to advance their war efforts and that Biden’s decision to take them off the terrorist list hasn’t moved the dial on peace talks at all.

“The Houthis have no incentive to engage in talks,” said Brian Hook, former U.S. envoy for Iran under President Donald Trump, at an event at the Wilson Center on Tuesday. “To delist the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization … that has obviously significant substantive effects, but also symbolically it is signaling to the Houthis that they will have a free hand and they can continue with what they’re doing without much consequence.”

But those arguments appeared to have little impact as opposition to the plan grew at the U.N. and in Washington. The U.N. drafted an internal paper detailing the potential humanitarian impact of the terrorist designation on relief efforts. The confidential five-page memo, obtained by Foreign Policy, says that exemptions for the delivery of humanitarian assistance would be insufficient to stave off a massive humanitarian calamity, noting that private importers were responsible for 85 percent of the country’s food imports.

“Yemenis need commercial imports to survive. Aid agencies cannot replace commercial imports,” the memo states, noting that the humanitarian crisis has not abated since more than a year ago, when the Trump administration first issued its designation. Following the 2021 designation, suppliers largely canceled orders to Yemeni importers. “If the supply chain dries up, many more Yemenis will go hungry,” the memo reads.

“Designation risks scaring off commercial imports and further crippling Yemen’s battered economy,” according to the U.N. memo. “There are already signs that food and other essential imports will fall if a new designation proceeds.”

Major Yemeni importers have expressed concern to the U.N. that the designation will impact their ability to bring food, medicine, and other essential commodities into the country.

In a press briefing earlier this month, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the Biden administration will use “all appropriate tools, including sanctions and designations of Houthi leaders” to hold the Houthis to account while remaining “committed to doing all we can, as effectively as we can, to address the humanitarian emergency that continues to afflict Yemen.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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