In a statement issued January 10, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that his office was set to inform Congress of its intention to designate the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen (better known as the Houthis) as a foreign terrorist organization and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity.
The Houthis have been engaged in an intermittent insurgency against the government of Yemen since 1994. The insurgency escalated sharply in 2014, when the movement seized the capital, Sanaa, and the surrounding areas. It has since held Sanaa, and today remains in control of a large swath of the territory of Yemen. The Houthis' capture of Sanaa triggered a Saudi-led intervention in 2015.
This intervention is usually depicted in Western media as a resounding failure and proof of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's impulsiveness and inexperience. But while the war in Yemen has without doubt produced great suffering for the civilian population, the Saudi and Emirati-led intervention did succeed in forestalling a potentially strategic disaster that would have accompanied a Houthi conquest of the entirety of Yemen.
The Yemeni interior consists largely of sand and rock. However, the country abuts a strategic choke point of global importance. This is the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. Bab al-Mandab is a vital route for oil and natural gas shipments passing from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea and on to the Suez Canal, through which some 9% of total global petroleum products pass.
Had the Houthis captured the area in 2015, it would have given their patrons – Iran – the ability to choke off the strait at will, and thus hold the world economy ransom.
The Saudis and their allies failed to reconquer the entirety of Yemen from the pro-Iranian forces, but they did protect Bab al-Mandab. Similarly, the intervention prevented the main port of Yemen, Hodeidah, from falling under the complete control of the Houthis.
The result is that Yemen, like a number of other Arab countries, is now subject to de facto division and ongoing conflict. The Houthis control the capital and a large part of the populated center of the country. The government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi controls much of the sparsely populated east, and the strategically important south and western coastal areas.
The pro-government side has itself fractured. The separatist, UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council controls the port of Aden and a section of the southern coast.
To make matters yet more complicated, two rival Salafi jihadi networks – al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State group – are active on the ground.
As a result, divided Yemen represents one of the friction points for the regional clash between rival alliances: on the one hand, an uneasy coalition of pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati elements (tacitly backed by Egypt and Israel), and on the other, a pro-Iran Shia militia.
Unlike other Iran-backed militias, Ansar Allah is not the direct creation of the IRGC.
The Houthis differ from other pro-Iran forces in the region in a number of ways. Unlike Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Badr Organization and other such militia groups, Ansar Allah is not the direct creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is built, rather, around north Yemeni tribal structures.
The Houthis themselves are a north Yemeni branch of the Banu Hamdan tribe. They follow the Zaidiya branch of Shia Islam, whereas the Iranians and their clients in Iraq and Lebanon are Twelver Shia.
These differences have been used by some observers to suggest that the Houthis belong to a different category when compared to other Iran-supported militias, and that it is therefore simplistic to define events in Yemen along the lines of a proxy conflict.
But while local conditions should not be ignored, the weight of evidence for extensive Iranian support to the Houthis is overwhelming. This week, an article in Arab News offered new and intriguing detail regarding the process whereby Tehran ensures the flow of weaponry to its Yemeni allies.
Arab News interviewed four Yemeni fishermen who revealed that they had been brought to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas via a humanitarian flight to Oman. They had then been trained by Iranian personnel in the use of GPS, camouflage and control and maintenance of vessels. The men had been deployed in the Somali coastal city of Berbera, from where they would engage in the transport of Iranian consignments across the Bab al-Mandab Strait to the Houthis in Yemen. They revealed an ongoing, complex and extensive arms-supply operation.
Iran uses the territory in Yemen controlled by the Houthis for the launching of missiles at Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis also provide a convenient, ostensibly independent address, at which Tehran can "park" acts for which it prefers not to claim responsibility.
For example, the Houthis claimed responsibility for the very significant, extensive and sophisticated attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019. The attack involved the use of drones and cruise missiles, and was far beyond capabilities that the Houthis could have mustered independently.
The designation is clearly intended to cement Trump's policy of maximum pressure on Iran.
The Trump administration's 11th-hour designation is clearly intended to help formalize and cement its policy of maximum pressure on Iran to the greatest extent possible. Pompeo and his team at the State Department have been the driving force behind the maximum pressure that has largely succeeded in holding Iran in place over the last two years.
The designation of the Houthis appears to be part of a series of moves intended to make it difficult for the incoming administration to move back to a path of appeasement of Iran.
It is questionable whether these moves will succeed. Iranian support for the Houthis will not be seriously impacted by the move. Tehran is obviously indifferent to such designations. A number of aid agencies expressed concern that the designation might make it harder for the transfer of food and humanitarian aid into Houthi-controlled areas.
But perhaps what the move reveals most clearly is concern on the part of Pompeo and his team that much of the momentum built up regarding pressure on Iran and its proxies is now set to go to waste.
This concern is shared in a number of regional capitals, including Jerusalem.
It remains to be seen whether these concerns will be realized in the near future. But either way, the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, while clearly representing an accurate description of reality, is unlikely to impact the developing situation in a very significant way.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.