The Biden administration took actions on January 26, 2021 to suspend the Trump administration’s recent sanctions against the Houthi rebel group in Yemen. The Treasury Department will exempt from sanctions certain transactions by the Houthi.
The Trump Administration’s Sanctions
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthis as foreign terrorists on January 10, 2021, which led to the application of sanctions against the Houthi on January 19, 2021. This move followed sanctions against four Houthi leaders on December 10, 2020 and accompanied sanctions against three more individuals in the Houthi command.
Secretary Pompeo stated of the Houthi, otherwise known as Ansarallah, “The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.”
The Houthi are backed by the Iranian government, while the Saudi Arabian government is an ally of the United States. The sanctions would have the impact of weakening Iran’s position in the conflict, as well as strengthening Saudi Arabia’s.
Countering Iran has been a cornerstone of President Trump’s foreign policy, as he removed the U.S. from the Iran nuclear pact, or the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018 and subsequently implemented a program of “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran. The January sanctions against the Houthi, which took effect one day before President Biden’s inauguration, may have been a last-ditch attempt by the Trump administration to cement its legacy.
Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen
The United Nations and aid groups denounced the Trump administration’s sanctions against the Houthi, claiming they would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The United Nations World Food Programme states, “Sixteen million Yemenis are food insecure, of which nearly 5 million are acutely food insecure.” The United Nations has warned that Yemen is on the brink of a large-scale famine.
The North of the country, where the Houthi are in control, is where the majority of the Yemeni population is located. Therefore, aid groups are required to cooperate with the Houthi government in order to disseminate resources. The Houthi have control of the constitutional capital Sana’a.
Secretary Pompeo stated, “The United States recognizes concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Pompeo said in his statement. “We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.”
Some of these measures included allowances for aid groups, the United Nations, and the Red Cross to continue working in Yemen. Nevertheless, aid groups continued to denounce the sanctions as a major impediment to their work.
Some of the Biden administration’s first foreign policy hurdles have been to undo or overcome the actions taken by the former administration in the final hours before President Biden’s inauguration. The Biden administration’s exemptions of the Houthi’s financial transactions from these sanctions aim to avert further starvation and suffering in Yemen, which stands on the verge of a famine. It also signals that the Biden administration’s policies regarding Iran will be nowhere near as strident as the Trump administration’s; President Biden may in fact rejoin the Iran nuclear pact, championed by President Obama.