In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that lifting terrorism sanctions on Iran would not advance U.S. national security interests. Weeks later, however, the Biden administration established the blueprint for doing so, by weakening and then rescinding terrorism sanctions against the Iranian-supported Houthi group, officially known as Ansar Allah, and its leadership.
On January 10, 2021, the Trump administration announced it had designated Ansar Allah as both a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that if Ansar Allah “did not behave like a terrorist organization, we would not designate it as an FTO and SDGT.” Pompeo proceeded to cite Ansar Allah’s targeting of civilian infrastructure, ties to the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and seizure and imprisonment of U.S. nationals.
An FTO designation institutes a visa ban, allows U.S. banks to block the assets of the designated organization, and establishes the broad extraterritorial application of criminal prohibitions on any U.S. person who provides the FTO with material support. The SDGT authority enables the United States to target terrorist financiers who access the U.S. financial system. In 2019, the SDGT measures were strengthened and expanded by the Trump administration to include secondary sanctions on individuals or entities, including businesses, that allow SDGTs to use their services.
By contrast, Yemen-related sanctions under Executive Order (E.O.) 13611, which President Barack Obama signed in 2012, contain fewer effective measures to target those providing Ansar Allah with financial and material support. The executive order authorized sanctions against Ansar Allah’s leadership but does not impose the same extensive secondary sanctions. Indeed, the Trump administration’s primary aim in designating Ansar Allah as an FTO and SDGT was to increase the risk for Ansar Allah’s foreign facilitators beyond the restrictions in E.O. 13611.
On January 25, 2021, the Biden administration issued a general license allowing companies to conduct a wide array of business with Ansar Allah. Nearly one month later, the administration lifted the FTO and SDGT designations on Ansar Allah in their entirety. Blinken stated that while the conduct leading to Ansar Allah’s terrorism designations has not changed, the decision to delist the group is “a recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.”
While Yemen’s humanitarian challenges are dire, Washington has mechanisms to mitigate the humanitarian impact of these designations, such as general and specific licenses that the Treasury Department can issue. Additionally, the State Department can approve transactions that keep aid flowing into vulnerable areas, using mechanisms similar to those employed in areas controlled by the Islamic State in Syria.
Blinken’s announcement of Ansar Allah’s delisting noted that its leaders “remain sanctioned under E.O. 13611 related to 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 [unmanned aerial vehicle] and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia.”
Blinken’s statement incorrectly implies that E.O. 13611 imposes the same level of economic pressure on the Houthi leadership as FTO and SDGT designations.
The rolling back of Ansar Allah terrorism sanctions – based not on a change in the group’s conduct, but on a misapplication of U.S. humanitarian policy – could serve as a trial balloon for the administration’s future easing of terrorism sanctions against Iranian entities, such as the IRGC and the Central Bank of Iran, or Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah.
The Biden administration could use the Ansar Allah playbook to rescind terrorism sanctions against these entities, even while maintaining sanctions on certain individuals. The administration could also undermine the efficacy of sanctions designations by issuing excessively broad general licenses.
Senators who do not want to see terrorism sanctions against Iran weakened can leverage the nomination process to pressure the administration to provide public assurances that it will not undertake such actions. Members of Congress can also introduce legislation blocking the administration from delisting Iranian entities subject to terrorism sanctions absent a wholesale change in conduct by those entities. Only by taking such actions can Congress disrupt what could be the beginning of a dangerous Iran policy.
By: Matthew Zweig a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)