The United States plans to designate Yemen's Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late on Sunday, 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, which was first reported by Reuters hours earlier, comes as the administration of President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take over from the Trump administration on Jan. 20.
"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 (FTO)", Pompeo said in a statement late on Sunday.
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.
"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", 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, he added.
Pompeo said that with the implementation of these designations on Jan. 19, the US Treasury Department will provide some licenses that will apply to some humanitarian activities conducted by non-governmental organizations in Yemen and to certain transactions related to exports to Yemen of critical commodities like food and medicine.
The Treasury Department has the power to carve out exceptions by issuing special licenses to humanitarian groups to ship food and medical supplies to heavily sanctioned countries, as it has done with Iran and Venezuela.
The designation has been the subject of weeks of fierce debate within the Trump administration and internal disagreements over how to carve out exceptions for aid shipments held up a final decision on the blacklisting, multiple sources told Reuters.
A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthi group. UN officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as the country's suffering is also worsened by an economic and currency collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Nations describes Yemen as the world's largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its people in need of help. Top UN officials have warned that millions of people are facing famine and more money is needed to deliver aid.
The Houthi group is the de facto authority in northern Yemen and aid agencies have to work with it to deliver assistance. Aid workers and supplies also come in through Houthi-controlled Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port.
"This serves no interest at all," Ryan Crocker, a retired US ambassador who served in the Middle East, said of the designation. "Are there elements among the Houthis who have been involved in terrorist acts? Sure. Just as with other groups in the Middle East."
"The Houthis are an integral part of Yemeni society. They always have been. This is making a strategic enemy out of a local force that has been part of Yemen for generations. They are not Iranian pawns."
In November UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Yemen was in "imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades," warning against any unilateral moves as the United States threatened to blacklist the Houthis.
A spokesman for Guterres declined to comment on Sunday. Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But international relief officials have said such measures have often failed to unblock the flow of aid because banks and insurance companies are worried about running afoul of US sanctions, and that this could also be the case with Yemen.