US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the plan late Sunday prompting calls for special safeguards to be included, amid fears that sanctions could see food, fuel and medicines blocked from entering Houthi-controlled territory.
Mr Pompeo said that alongside the Iran-backed group, the US would also be designating three Houthi leaders Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim.
Yemen’s newly formed government, whose members were injured in a suspected Houthi attack last month, said it “unwaveringly supports” the decision as a “just recourse and remedy in the interest of achieving peace”.
Using the official name for the group, Mr Pompeo said in a statement “These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region.
The Treasury Department has in the past issued such special licenses to aid groups operating in heavily sanctioned countries.
But international relief officials have said such measures often failed to unblock aid flows as banks and insurance firms worry about running afoul of sanctions. There are also concerns it would scupper any attempts to push for peace as anyone who meets with the Houthis could be deemed collaborating with terrorists.
A Houthi leader said in a Twitter post that the movement, which has been battling a Saudi-led coalition since 2015, reserved the right to respond to any designation. They deny they are puppets of Iran.
“The policy of the Trump administration and its behaviour is terrorist,” the Houthi official Mohammed Ali al-Houthi tweeted. “We reserve the right to respond to any designation issued by the Trump administration or any administration.”
In response to the designation in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference: “It is likely that the bankrupt US government might try to further tarnish the United States’ image in its remaining days and poison the American heritage.”
Yemen has been embroiled in a ruinous six-year civil war since the Iran-backed Houthis swept control of the country forcing recognised president Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee.
Fearing the encroachment of Iran on its borders, Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies launched a bombing campaign in March 2015 to try to reinstate the recognised government.
But there has been little hope of a comprehensive peace deal, and the conflict has only become more complicated as southern separatists within the government forces, turned on their former allies and tried to declare self-rule in the south.
The layers of fighting have sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the world in terms of numbers. The World Food Programme has warned of an impending famine, saying by mid this year more than half the population of the country – or 16.2 million people – will be suffering from acute hunger.
There are concerns the designation will only deepen the crisis.
The designation of the Houthi group is likely part of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy against Iran in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency before the inauguration of Joe Biden, who has said he would pursue a new nuclear deal with Iran.
Axios news website reported last month that Donald Trump planned to unleash a “flood” of sanctions against Iran and its interests across the region to make the chances of reviving the nuclear deal or any kind of rapprochement less likely.
Rights groups and diplomats have voiced concern that the designation will only hamper United Nations efforts to broker a comprehensive peace deal amid the collapse of the economy and the Covid-19 Pandemic.
David Miliband, President and CEO at the International Rescue Committee, called it “pure diplomatic vandalism”.
“This policy, in the name of tying up the Houthis, will actually tie up the aid community and international diplomacy,” he said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council warned that sanctions will “hamstring the ability of aid agencies to respond” and without additional safeguards and broader exemptions for the commercial sector, dealt a “devastating blow” to Yemen’s faltering economy.
They raised the issue of getting food and medicine into Yemen, a country 80 per cent dependent on imports and called on the US President Elect Joe Biden to act upon taking office.
Human Rights Watch also warned of the “catastrophic consequences” of the designation preventing numerous non-profit and humanitarian groups from operating in the areas under Houthi control, where the bulk of the country’s population lives.
Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy lead Scott Paul, describing the US move as “counterproductive and dangerous”, urged President-elect Joe Biden to revoke the designation immediately upon taking office.
Ryan Crocker, a retired US ambassador who served in the Middle East, told Reuters the decision “serves no interest at all. He added “The Houthis are an integral part of Yemeni society…This is making a strategic enemy out of a local force that has been part of Yemen for generations.”
The foreign ministry of Yemen’s Saudi-backed government supported the designation and called for further “political and legal pressure” on the Houthis.
Yemen’s newly formed cabinet was hit by a deadly missile attack at Aden airport as its members landed in the country from Saudi Arabia nearly two weeks ago. No ministers were gravely injured but over a dozen onlookers, aid workers travelling through the airport and members of the security forces were killed. No one has officially claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Yemen government believes the Houthis were behind it.
Yemen’s recognised foreign minister Ahmed A BinMubarak told The Independent despite the danger the cabinet was staying put in Yemen.
“It’s a challenging environment especially after the attack but we are very determined to stay and serve our people. “