The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Re-designating the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization after the drone attack on the UAE is imperative. This, along with overt support for the UAE, would deliver a sharp message and likely have a beneficial effect on Iranian conduct in Vienna.

Delisting the Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, as a terrorist organization, was among the first acts of the Biden Administration in the region.

It was driven by understandable motives. First and foremost, the wish to enable aid to be rushed to a population suffering terrible deprivations.

However, it was a beginner’s mistake, interpreted by rulers in Sanaa and their backers in Tehran as a sign (one of several such indications) that the US is turning its back on traditional allies such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, indeed, soon sent a “thank you” note in the form of a long-range missile attack on Saudi civilian targets.

The pattern persisted and reached a new level of murderous audacity with the drone attack on Abu Dhabi on January 17, which claimed three lives. It has been followed by an ugly intimidation campaign, depicting the targeting of Burj Khalifa with images reminiscent of 9/11 aimed at scaring citizens and investors in the Emirates.

This escalation puzzled some observers, who expected Iran to lower the flames as it presses the US and the West for concessions in Vienna. There has been speculation that the Houthis no longer act in full coordination with Iran, particularly after the mysterious death of Iran’s “Ambassador” to Yemen and commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in Sanaa, Hassan Irloo, in December 2021. 

However, there is no reason to be mystified by the dangerous combination of Iranian diplomatic action on one hand and Iranian-backed violence – in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere – on the other.

They fit well together, in the broader context of the regime’s bloated vision of itself as a global power and standard-bearer of a revolutionary message challenging the post-1945 disposition in world affairs. Ultimately, this vision would come to fruition with the possession of a nuclear bomb.

Violence is a way of testing the proposition that the present US administration has no stomach for a confrontation and, therefore, will impose its will neither in Vienna nor in the region.

Moreover, there is another reason for the timing of this escalation: namely, the severe reversal suffered by Houthi forces in their bid to take over the provinces of Marib and Shabwa. On both fronts, the main force confronting them has been the Giants Brigades, a group trained and armed by the UAE and part of the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition supporting Yemen’s legitimate government.

The deep divisions within the alliance, mainly due to support by the UAE for separatist elements in South Yemen, have been patched over sufficiently to generate an effective operational capacity.

The US should change course and reverse the delisting of the Houthis as a terrorist organization as there is a greater chance of turning the tide in Yemen. In addition, there is a need to dispel Iran’s delusions, which allowed for the absurd situation in which Iran’s leaders Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi are the ones who decide if, and when, the US will be allowed in the room in Vienna!

With all due respect to the noble diplomatic efforts of US Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking,  he also acknowledged in an interview with Stephen Snyder in The World, in December 2021, that “the key factor that really plays the most detrimental influence, I think, in our view, is Iran.”

His goal of de-escalation and a political solution could thus be facilitated if Iran and the Houthis were disabused of the common assumption that they had already won the war.

The US may already be  leaning this way, as President Joe Biden said last week that his administration is considering re-designating the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization after the drone attack on the UAE.

This, along with overt support for the UAE, would deliver a sharp message and likely have a beneficial effect on Iranian conduct in Vienna.

The conduct of Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and his team has been driven by the illusion that they are in a position of strength. There would be little prospect of a successful outcome until this misperception is shattered. At which point it would probably be the blunt but friendly advice of Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the nuclear talks, that would induce the Iranian leadership to cut its losses and compromise.

Israel’s role

As for Israel, it has a triple role to play. Direct military meddling in Yemen should be considered impractical at present and even harmful to the Saudi-led coalition’s interests.

Even though the Houthis (unlike Iran, which pretends to distinguish “Jews” from “Zionists”) openly wave the anti-Semitic banner – a “curse upon the Jews” –  intervention of any sort in a remote and unfamiliar country would probably not end well, at least until Israel builds a solid intelligence foundation for potential action. .

While Israel must prepare defensive options against missile or drone raids or attacks on shipping, let alone the danger of a more systemic disruption in the Bab al-Mandab straits, the immediate efforts in response to the escalation should be three-pronged.

 The Red Sea with the Bab-el-Mandeb at the bottom right. Photo credit: Wikimedia/Eric Gaba 

First, and most importantly, Israel should encourage the act of re-designation of the Houthi, and yet convey to the US and other countries that there are other ways for delivering humanitarian assistance.

Second, intelligence cooperation should be strengthened with the Saudi-led coalition, and Israeli collection capabilities should be tasked to monitor the Iranian and Houthi threat. Iran’s arms supply routes to Yemen are of specific importance, primarily by sea.

Finally, being a global powerhouse in the field of drone and counter-drone technologies, Israel should stand ready to provide solutions to specific challenges.

It is worth noting that at the analytical level, assessing the threat, JISS held a webinar on this subject – with a detailed presentation by Dr. Uzi Rubin, a leading authority on missile defense and UAVs, which can be viewed here.

Such acts of assistance, in turn, would also serve to further cement the Abraham Accords and perhaps expand their scope.

By taking a firm stand on this issue, Israel can once again demonstrate its strategic value as an ally – a goal also served by acting in Syria unrelentingly against Iranian assets.


JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.


Photo: Shutterstock