The humanitarian situation in Yemen is indeed unbearable, but it is the Houthis who are causing and compounding it. The U.S. and the international community can no longer ignore or reward the malign behavior of Iran or the Houthis. Allowing the Houthis -- and Iran -- unchecked freedom to terrorize the Middle East will only make the humanitarian crisis expand in scope and severity. Pictured: Houthi forces in Sanaa, Yemen on April 8, 2021. (Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)
The U.S. and the international community can no longer ignore or reward the malign behavior of Iran or the Houthis.
International pressure is growing to redesignate Yemen's Houthi rebels as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), but pushback is emerging from humanitarian groups who fear it could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The concerns of these groups are not unfounded, but failure to relist the Houthis will not address the underlying, root cause of the issue -- Iran's destabilizing effects on the Middle East executed in concert with its terrorist proxies, which include the Houthis.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is indeed unbearable, but it is the Houthis who are causing and compounding it.
The Houthis, it seems, are holding the people of Yemen hostage, as bargaining chips to dictate the terms of allowing humanitarian aid. If the Houthis are designated as terrorists, it seems, they will not let in humanitarian aid, and the civilians of Yemen will suffer. If the international community wants, it can pay a ransom to the people causing the suffering. It is a form of manipulation. It is called blackmail. Unfortunately, this kind of inverted arrangement -- high price, low suffering -- usually ends up making humanitarian crises worse. What the Houthis and similar groups see is: Extortion works, let's keep doing it!
Instead of rewarding the Houthis by delisting them, the U.S., the media, the international community, and humanitarian organizations need to call them out for their crimes against humanity, condemn them, and hold them to the harshest account.
There is no doubt about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The statistics are horrific, and the human suffering cannot be disputed. But while some are arguing that the humanitarian crisis is the reason the Biden Administration should not reinstate the Houthis to the FTO list, the hypothesis is wrong. In fact, it is exactly because of the growing calamity that the U.S. must redesignate the Houthis as an FTO.
Yemen has a poverty rate of 75%. In 2020 it reported over 200,000 cholera cases, in a country of roughly 29 million people. The NGO Humanity & Inclusion estimates that two-thirds of the population needs humanitarian assistance. It also estimates that 16 million are "food insecure", 15 million lack access to clean water, and 4 million are displaced. Staggering numbers indeed.
But these numbers highlight exactly why re-designating the Houthis as an FTO needs to take place. The Houthis are backed by Iran, just like its designated terror proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. All three terror groups are disruptive forces in the Middle East, and used by Iran in its efforts to undercut U.S. influence in the region and threaten Israel and the Gulf states.
Iran's regime, since it came to power in 1979, has been working to spread its influence and "export its revolution" even further. The recent drone and missile attacks by the Houthis against civilians in the United Arab Emirates have destabilized global oil prices and further terrorized innocents on the Arabian Peninsula.
The government of the internationally recognized Republic of Yemen also has presented intelligence showing that the Houthis work with al-Qaeda and ISIS to spread terror and conflict in the country. The U.S. knows well the threat al-Qaeda poses to the international community. The world also knows how ISIS treated civilians under its control during the period when it governed a self-declared Caliphate covering parts of Syria and Iraq, from roughly 2014-2017. We can never forget the pictures of individuals being hurled off buildings or burned alive in cages.
The problem, therefore, is not just the Houthis, but also Iran. When the Houthis are not listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, Iran is effectively invited to advance its nuclear weapons program and "export its revolution" -- with no obstruction.
Iran has a history of violence and threats against America and its allies. Iranian agents plotted to blow up the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in our nation's capital. More recently, Iran plotted to kill the then U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks and kidnap and kill Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad from her Brooklyn home. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has threatened the life of Salman Rushdie and this month released a video depicting the assassination of former President Donald J. Trump.
Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, al-Qaeda and ISIS are not groups that have earned the trust of the international community to help alleviate humanitarian crises anywhere in the world, ever.
Forestalling the redesignation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization will only worsen the situation in the short- and long-term. Delay or failure to address the issue will only allow the problem to metastasize and further spread across the Middle East -- exactly the objective of Iran's regime. The Houthis' attacks on the UAE has shown the Iranian-backed terror proxy's reach expanding to build fear; they have already threatened more attacks.
There is no expectation that redesignating the Houthis as an FTO will resolve the issue or that humanitarian suffering in Yemen will end soon. However, failing to list the Houthis as an FTO will not resolve the issue either. Worse, it will only further Iran's and the Houthis' malign behavior. This issue has been ongoing for years; the U.S. and the international community need to confront the problem at its core. That means increasing pressure, and not rewarding Iran or the Houthis for terrorism.
The international community greatly appreciates the role that humanitarian organizations have played and are playing to serve those in need in Yemen. But these groups must assist the international community in holding Iran and the Houthis accountable for the suffering they are inflicting on the people of Yemen.
How the U.S. addresses the threat posed by the Houthis will be closely watched by Iran's friends, the Russians and the Chinese. It will be watched by Iran's other proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. It also will be watched closely by the friends of the U.S., including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan. If you are beginning to see a pattern, it is because it exists.
Allowing the Houthis -- and Iran -- unchecked freedom to terrorize the Middle East will only make the humanitarian crisis expand in scope and severity. Iran, Russia and China are saber rattling. The Biden Administration needs to show it will protect our allies, immediately redesignate the Houthis as an FTO, and make aggression unthinkable to our adversaries – not reward them.
Peter Hoekstra was US Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration. He served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the second district of Michigan and served as Chairman and Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is currently Chairman of the Center for Security Policy Board of Advisors, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.