Biden Shifts on Yemen War, Houthis Raise Larger Questions About Iran Policy

The Administration Has Made Clear it Will Not Unilaterally Lift Sanctions Against Iran

Biden Shifts on Yemen War, Houthis Raise Larger Questions About Iran Policy

With most of its senior foreign policy staff in place, the Biden administration has begun to lay the groundwork for a re-orientation of Washington’s Iran policy. Removing the Houthis from the terrorism blacklist was, in the view of some, an indication of possible American re-entry into the nuclear deal. A closer read of the administration’s statements and decisions, however, suggests a more complex picture.


Last Friday, the Biden administration announced that it intends to formally rescind the designation of the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. As one State Department official explained, “Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration, which the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have since made clear would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The announcement followed President Biden’s declaration that the U.S. would halt military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.

Iranian officials promptly expressed satisfaction. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in Iranian state media that “stopping support ... for the Saudi coalition, if not a political maneuver, could be a step towards correcting past mistakes.” Javad Zarif gave an interview with Hamshahri newspaper on Saturday in which he said, “Time is running out for the Americans, both because of the parliament bill and the election atmosphere that will follow the Iranian New Year.”

Some American analysts, for their part, expressed dismay with the implications of the move. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies observed on Twitter, “Some Middle East watchers will try to pretend that this Houthi debate is just about Yemen and aid. It’s not. We all know it. It’s a first move in the forthcoming Iran policy shift. It’s a pawn to the center of the board.”


On the other side of the ledger, the Biden administration has made some moves which complicate this analysis. Where Tehran has been demanding for several years that the U.S. re-enter the JCPOA, drop all current American sanctions, and pay $130 billion in “damages” before it will re-enter compliance with the 2015 agreement’s limitations on its nuclear activities, Biden has maintained a flat refusal to do so. On February 7, in an interview with CBS, Biden simply said “No” when asked if he planned to lift sanctions in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table.

And indeed, the White House has been swift to reiterate that message. “Overall his position remains exactly what it has been,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a subsequent briefing, “which is that if Iran comes into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same and then use that as a platform to build a larger and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern.”

If Iranian officials paid close attention to Biden’s maiden foreign policy speech, they will recall that, alongside Biden’s gesture of reconciliation on Yemen, he also offered firm guarantees of Gulf security, affirming that “Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.” We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.” And while many have focused on Biden’s decision to rescind the eleventh-hour sanctions imposed by former Secretary Pompeo’s team on the Houthis, the Treasury Department has since confirmed that that decision does not apply to Houthi leaders who have been otherwise sanctioned.

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