WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has suspended some of the terrorism sanctions that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo imposed on Yemen’s Houthi rebels in his waning days in office.
The Treasury Department said Monday it would exempt certain transactions involving the Houthis from sanctions resulting from Pompeo’s designation of the group as a “foreign terrorist organization” on Jan. 10.
The exemption will expire Feb. 26, according to a statement from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announcing a general license for transactions that involve entities owned by the Iran-backed Houthis.
The sanctions Pompeo imposed had taken effect Jan. 19, just a day before President Joe Biden was inaugurated, and had been roundly criticized by the United Nations and relief organizations. Critics said the sanctions would exacerbate what is already one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises by barring aid deliveries to civilians in the war-torn nation.
Treasury’s license does not reverse Pompeo’s designations and does not apply to specific members of the Houthi group who have been otherwise sanctioned.
The Trump administration’s designation had sparked confusion in aid agencies and warnings from the U.N., as well as senior Republicans, that it could have a devastating impact on a conflict-wracked nation facing the risk of famine.
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Several aid groups had pleaded for Biden to immediately reverse the designation, with Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy Lead Scott Paul saying, “Lives hang in the balance.”
The Iranian-supported Houthi rebels rule the capital and Yemen’s north where the majority of the population lives, forcing international aid groups to work with them. Agencies depend on the Houthis to deliver aid, and they pay salaries to Houthis to do so.
The Biden administration’s suspension was announced on the same day that tens of thousands of Yemenis marched in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, heeding a call by the Houthis to condemn the U.S. for labelling them a terrorist group and for backing the Saudi-led military coalition that is battling it.
Six years of war between a U.S.-backed Arab coalition and the Houthi rebels have been catastrophic for Yemen, killing more than 112,000 people and reducing infrastructure from roads and hospitals to water and electricity networks to ruins.
It began with the Houthi takeover of the north in 2014, which prompted a destructive air campaign by the Saudi-led coalition, aimed at restoring the internationally recognized government.
Most of Yemen’s 30 million people rely on international aid to survive. The U.N. says 13.5 million Yemenis already face acute food insecurity, a figure that could rise to 16 million by June.
The U.S. designation move was part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to isolate and cripple Iran. It also showed support to a close U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, which leads the anti-Houthi coalition in the war.
Saudi Arabia has advocated the terror designation, hoping it would pressure the rebels to reach a peace deal. Past rounds of peace talks and cease-fire agreements have faltered.
Reuters contributed to this report.