On February 16, 2021, the Biden administration removed the Houthi rebels (Ansar Allah) in Yemen from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations after they were added by the Trump administration in January 2021,1 shortly before the end of his term. The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, announced on February 12, 2021, that the change was made “in recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. We have listened to warnings from the United Nations, humanitarian groups, and bipartisan members of Congress, among others, that the designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel.” The new policy took effect just days later, on February 16.2
However, the U.S. Government decided to maintain the sanctions on Houthi leaders Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abdul Khalid al-Din al-Houthi, Abd Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim, stating:
[Because of] acts that threaten the peace, security, or stability of Yemen. We will continue to closely monitor the activities of Ansar Allah and its leaders and are actively identifying additional targets for designation, especially those responsible for explosive boat attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and UAV and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia.3
Days later, on February 16, the State Department issued another statement calling on the Houthis “to halt their advance on Marib and cease all military operations and turn to negotiations. The Houthis’ assault on Marib is the action of a group not committed to peace or to ending the war afflicting the people of Yemen.” Marib is the capital of Marib Province (120 km east of the capital Sanaa) and is controlled by the “legitimate government of Yemen,” according to the State Department. About one million refugees are located in Marib, one of the focal points of Yemen’s humanitarian crises.4
The announcements barely mentioned Iran’s involvement and direct responsibility for continuing the conflict in Yemen and its longstanding support for the Houthi rebels. [One time, at the end of Secretary Blinken’s statement, he said: “We remain committed to helping U.S. partners in the Gulf defend themselves, including against threats arising from Yemen, many of which are carried out with the support of Iran.”5]
In recent years, and more so after the crisis in Yemen began, Iran transferred a variety of weapons to the Houthi rebels’ ground, maritime, and air sectors, the manufacturing know-how, and instructors (including Lebanese Hizbullah members) for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Yemen is an important front for Iran’s campaign against Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations, as well as the launching pad for a range of weapons, including GPS-guided armed drones (UAVs), remote controlled Water-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (RC-WBIED), cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and rockets fired at Saudi and United Arab Emirates territories. Weaponized and intelligence gathering UAVs have been used increasingly by the Houthis in operations against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and civilian, critical, and oil infrastructures in Saudi Arabia.
Yemen serves as Iran’s largest testing ground for the practical-operational examination of a variety of weapons such as sniper rifles, IEDs, rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons, missiles, rockets, drones (intelligence-gathering and attack), all as part of its ongoing examination of the asymmetrical fighting strategy it is constantly developing against the United States and Israel. It should be noted that sources in Yemen have also threatened to attack Israeli territory from Yemen.
Just minutes after Secretary Blinken posted on the social network Twitter about the decision to remove the Houthi rebels from the list of terrorist organizations, a Houthi military posted a statement that Ansar Allah successfully attacked a sensitive military target at the Abha International Airport (southwestern Saudi Arabia) and its headquarters in the Khamis Mushayt region, launching three Qasef-2K and Samad-3 drones, which “hit the targets with great precision.”6 A civilian plane was also hit in the attack on Abha Airport. On February 15, the Houthis returned and attacked the airports of Abha and Jeddah in a similar fashion, stressing that the circle of fire had been “expanded” against the “Saudi depth.”7 (Shortly after a U.S. announcement on the lifting of the sanctions list, the State Department held the Houthis responsible for the Saudi attack.)
The Qasef-2K is a copy of the Iranian Ababil drone, which is equipped with a warhead of about 30 kg. The Samad-3 drones were named after the Houthi leader Salah al-Samad who was killed in an Arab coalition air raid in April 2018. In September 2018, a Houthi drone was fired at the Dubai International Airport “in light of the UAE’s involvement in the military activity of the Arab coalition in Yemen.”8 The Samad-3 has a range of 1,800 km.9
The Keyhan newspaper, which reflects the Iranian Supreme Leader’s positions, wrote on February 14 and 16, 2021, that the airstrikes were carried out in response “to Saudi Arabia’s continued aggression against Yemen.” Iran’s media echoes the announcements of the Houthi military and political spokespersons and serves as one of the Houthis’ main propaganda trumpeters. As part of the struggle with Saudi Arabia for regional influence over Muslim and Arab public opinion, the newspaper also quoted Mohammad Ali Al-Houthi, spokesman for Yemen’s Houthi Supreme Council, who warned the Yemeni army and fighters that the Houthis would continue their attacks deep into Saudi Arabia and its regional allies as long as they continued to attack Yemen.
Iran has an interest in continuing the fighting in Yemen, which, since the Saudi-led Arab coalition forces were sent to the country has not led to any substantial change in the situation on the ground. The Houthis continue to control most of the territory they have captured, including the important Red Sea port city of Al-Hudaydah and the capital Sanaa. Beyond testing various weapons, the fighting allows Iran to continuously exhaust and attrite Saudi Arabia, its sworn Sunni rival.
The U.S. decision to remove the Houthis from the terror list and halt some Saudi military aid used to attack Houthi targets in Yemen with U.S.-made precision-guided munitions plays into Iran’s hands at the sensitive timing of the possibility of the United States rejoining the nuclear agreement. The decision raises doubt about the seriousness of the United States’ policy statements to “expand and strengthen” the Iran deal to address the issues of ballistic missiles and Iran’s “destabilizing actions in country after country” – two key issues in which Iran “specializes” and which it “exports” Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
A Test for the Biden Administration in Iraq as Well
To illustrate the depth of Iran’s dilemma for American reintroduced policy in the region, pro-Iranian Iraqi Shi’ite militia linked to Hizbullah-Iraq – Saraya Awlia al-Dam – claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Erbil Airport and the adjacent U.S. military base on February 16, 2021. Fragments at the target indicate that 24 Fajr-1 (107 mm) Iranian made rockets were fired. The U.S. Secretary of State denounced the “outrageous attack”10 in which a civilian contractor was killed, and a U.S. service member and five more contractors have been injured. Secretary Blinken acknowledged that in the past, Shiite militias under Iran’s control carried out similar attacks in Iraq, “but for now it is too early to determine who is behind the attack” and that “the incident is under investigation.”11
It is possible that the action is another part of the pressure being exerted by Iran on the United States in the region, and it puts the American administration to its first serious test regarding its willingness to use force against Iran and its allies in the area, alongside its intention to return to the framework of the nuclear agreement.
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8. https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2018/09/30/575617/Yemen-drone-attack-Dubai-international-airport-Saudi-Arabia; https://english.almasirah.net/post/17785/In-Response-to-Continued-Saudi-led-Aggression%2C-Yemeni-Air-Forces-Hit-Important-Military-Targets-in