US President Joe Biden (AP/Kamran Jebreili) (AP/Kamran Jebreili)
Joe Biden

Houthi attacks on the UAE embarrass the Biden administration, which lifted its terrorist designation.

By Con Coughlin, Gatestone Institute

The Biden administration should hang its head in shame over its February 2021 decision to lift the terrorist designation imposed on Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, in the wake of the deadly attacks launched last month against the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of Washington’s key allies in the Gulf.

Ever since U.S. President Joe Biden made his controversial decision to lift the Houthis’ designation as a terrorist organisation shortly after he took office last year, there has been a marked escalation in the Houthis’ terrorist activities.

Gulf security experts say the Houthis have increased their attacks against the Saudi-led coalition, of which the UAE is a key member, since the terrorist designation was lifted.

These have included the use of missiles and drones supplied by Iran, which has emerged as the Houthis’ main military backer.

“After the terrorist designation was lifted, it is clear the Houthis believed they could resume their terrorist operations because no one was prepared to stop them,” a senior Gulf security official explained to me during a recent visit to the region.

In recent weeks, the Houthis have demonstrated their growing military sophistication – which is mainly due to the steady stream of weapons they are receiving from Tehran — by launching a series of terror attacks against the UAE.

Three people were killed and six injured when the Houthi rebels launched a series of missile and drone attacks last month against several UAE targets, including Abu Dhabi International airport.

This was followed by another rocket attack against the UAE, which was foiled after the Houthi missiles were intercepted and destroyed by the UAE defences.

Then, in the most recent terrorist operation, UAE security officials announced on Monday that the Emirates had intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Houthis as the Gulf state hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog on his first visit to the region since the Emirates signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020.

Embarrassing for Biden

The dramatic escalation in attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthis, which comes at a time when Iran is supposed to be engaging in diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal in Vienna, has prompted the UAE and the international community to renew calls for the Biden administration to take a firmer line in dealing with the terrorist movement.

Emirati leaders and others in the Gulf have publicly called on Mr Biden to reimpose Washington’s terrorist designation against the Houthis, a move Gulf officials say would ultimately disrupt Iranian attempts to supply the rebels with sophisticated weaponry.

Just last December, the U.S. Navy seized two large caches of Iranian weapons from two vessels in the Arabian sea, which Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) intended to ship to the Houthi militia in Yemen, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

According to a draft UN Security Council report circulated in January, Iran has been exporting thousands of weapons from the Iranian port of Jask, on the Sea of Oman, to Yemen.

The recent upsurge in Houthi attacks against UAE targets has prompted the Emirati embassy in the U.S. as well as Arab and Muslim countries in the region to call on the Biden administration and Congress to support the re-designation of the Houthi militia as a foreign terrorist organisation.

In addition, the UAE’s influential ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al-Otaiba, has called on the Biden administration to provide his country with enhanced military support to deal with the mounting threat posed by the Houthis, as have others who are apparently anxious about the Middle East soon becoming destabilized.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written together with Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s permanent representative to the UN, Mr al-Otaiba called on the U.S. to provide the UAE with better anti-missile and anti-drone capabilities to protect the Gulf state from further attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis.

The upsurge in Houthi violence against the UAE is certainly extremely embarrassing for the Biden administration, which decided to lift the terrorist designation against the Houthis in the hope that it would persuade them to drop their terrorist activities.

Mr Biden also hoped removing the terrorist designation would be seen as a gesture of goodwill by Iran, the movement’s primary backer, and persuade Tehran to adopt a more constructive approach to the nuclear talks in Vienna.

Instead, the opposite has been the case, with Gulf security officials identifying an instant increase in Houthi terrorist activity the moment the terrorist designation was lifted last year.

In addition, Iran has shown little interest in reaching a deal on its nuclear programme at the talks currently taking place in Vienna, to the extent that U.S. officials are publicly warning that the negotiations are set to end in failure if a breakthrough is not forthcoming in the next few weeks.

Biden’s Legacy In Danger

In such circumstances, it is therefore vital that the Biden administration acknowledge that it has made a fundamental error by lifting the terrorist designation against the Houthis, and take immediate action to place the movement back on the list of designated terrorist organisations.

In addition, Washington should also pay heed to the Emiratis’ request, and that of other oil-rich potential targets in the Gulf, for enhanced defence capabilities to counter the Houthi threat.

In a recent interview with CNN, Ms Nusseibeh revealed that top-level security discussions, believed to include senior members of the Emirati National Security Council, were taking place in Washington about improving the state’s defences, which currently rely on the U.S.-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile interception system.

“Our ability to intercept and deflect these attacks is world-class,” she said. “There can always be upgrades and improvements and… additional intelligence cooperation and I think these are the fields we’re looking at with our partners.”

At the very least, therefore, the Biden administration should make amends for its ill-conceived decision to lift the terrorist designation of the Houthis and provide the Emiratis with the sophisticated weaponry they require to defend themselves against the deadly threat posed by the Iranian-backed rebels.

The continuing escalation by Iran and the Houthis is — as most likely is their intent — threatening to destabilise the region.

If they are not stopped, and quickly, the Biden legacy, along with its catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, will consist of appeasing and emboldening groups that draw on terrorism — such as the Houthis, the Palestinians and possibly the Taliban — as well as hostile regimes, including Russia, China and Iran.

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