WASHINGTON — Houthi rebels in Yemen will be stripped of a U.S. terrorist designation next week, the State Department said on Friday, despite a recent surge of violence that officials said may have been carried out with Iran’s help.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the designation would be formally revoked on Tuesday, in “recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.” It was imposed on Jan. 19, the day before President Donald J. Trump left office, in a final attempt to cut off funding, weapons and other support for Iran’s proxy fight against a Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia in a six-year civil war.
Mr. Blinken said the terrorist designation instead threatened to deepen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by denying civilians food, fuel and other basic commodities, given its chilling effect on importers who would have faced criminal penalties should the goods fall into Houthi hands. Most of the food in Yemen is imported, and the Houthis control strategic ports as well as the country’s capital, Sana.
Yet in the week since the Biden administration signaled it would lift the designation, Mr. Blinken has had to condemn the rebels for an attack at an international airport in Abha, Saudi Arabia, that hit a civilian airliner on Wednesday.
That same day, Mike Pompeo, who issued the designation as Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, said on Twitter message that revoking it was “a gift to the Iranians & will allow the Houthis to continue to foment terror around the world.”
Some analysts have cast doubt on any direct threat the Houthis pose against the United States.
In a statement on Friday, Mr. Blinken said that Iran had a hand in “many” of the threats that the Houthis pose to Yemen’s neighbors in the Middle East, and he pledged to “remain committed to helping U.S. partners in the gulf defend themselves.” He called the Saudi foreign minister twice over the past week, and dispatched the new American special envoy for Yemen policy, Timothy A. Lenderking, to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for meetings.
But President Biden announced last week that the United States would end its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, including some arms sales.
Mr. Blinken also said that American sanctions issued during the Obama administration against three Houthi leaders would remain in place, although he stripped them of individual designations as global terrorists.
He said the United States “remains cleareyed” about the rebel movement’s threats and violence, including its attacking U.S. allies, kidnapping American citizens, diverting humanitarian aid and repressing Yemeni civilians.
The Houthis’ “actions and intransigence prolong this conflict and exact serious humanitarian costs,” said Mr. Blinken, urging a political and peaceful resolution to the war as “the only means to durably end the humanitarian crisis afflicting the people of Yemen.”
About 80 percent of Yemen’s population of 30 million people live in areas under Houthi control. The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said in November that Yemen was “in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.”