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In foreign policy shift, Biden lifts terrorist designation for Houthis in Yemen

The Biden administration on Tuesday officially lifted the designation of the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen as a global terrorist organization. That announcement comes within a larger review of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Nick Schifrin reports on the prospects of diplomacy, and speaks to Timothy Lenderking, the new U.S. envoy to Yemen, to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today the Biden administration officially lifted the designation of the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen as a global terrorist organization.

    That announcement comes within a larger review of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has waged a six-year campaign against the Houthis. It's one of the most significant foreign policy shifts yet of the Biden administration.

    Nick Schifrin reports on the prospects for diplomacy, and speaks to the new U.S. envoy to Yemen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When Yemen's new government Cabinet arrived to fanfare six weeks ago, it was supposed to be a step toward ending the war. Instead, a Houthi rocket hit the tarmac. There was chaos and smoke. Parts of the airport were pulverized.

    For six years, a Saudi-led campaign tried to unseat the Iranian-backed Houthis from the capital, Sanaa. It failed. The Houthis are currently attacking the internationally recognized government's final northern stronghold. And last month, the Houthis hit another airport in Saudi Arabia and ripped a hole in a civilian airplane.

    But the campaign and Houthi intransigence have succeeded in transforming the Arab world's poorest country into a humanitarian catastrophe. The U.N. warns Yemen is in imminent danger of the worst famine in decades, and, this year, two million children under 5 will suffer from acute malnutrition.

    Last month, the Trump administration labeled the Houthis a global terrorist organization to try and cut off their funding and weapons, in part supplied by Iran, over the objection of humanitarians, including World Food Program Director David Beasley.

  • David Beasley:

    It is literally is going to be a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions. It needs to be reevaluated, and, quite frankly, it needs to be reversed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today the Biden administration officially made that reversal.

    Tim Lenderking is the new envoy to Yemen.

  • Tim Lenderking:

    Ending this war through a lasting political solution is the only way to durably end the humanitarian crisis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lenderking is leading a new push for diplomacy.

    Last week, he visited Saudi capital Riyadh with U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. And Griffiths visited Tehran.

    But diplomacy has been tried before. A 2018 deal largely fell apart. And, today, Yemen is even more splintered, and both sides have more than enough weapons and incentive to keep fighting.

    The Biden administration is trying to put pressure on Saudi Arabia. It froze the sale of arms the kingdom uses in Yemen, and it ended the targeting assistance that the U.S. military argued improved Saudi precision.

    During the campaign, President Biden warned Saudi Arabia that, as president, he would hold them accountable.

  • President Joe Biden:

    We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, today, the administration pledged to help protect Saudi Arabia from Houthi attacks.

  • Tim Lenderking:

    We are not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice. So, Saudi Arabia needs to have the ability to defend itself.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And for more on this, we are joined by Tim Lenderking, the new U.S. special envoy for Yemen.

    Tim Lenderking, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Secretary Blinken said today that Houthi attacks are not the actions of a group that claims to want peace. How can you negotiate a settlement if one of the sides does not want peace?

  • Tim Lenderking:

    I think, certainly, we see the Houthis in a pretty aggressive stance right now, if you look at just even the last couple of days, their cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia.

    And the offensive that they are apparently launching on Marib, which is a key Yemeni government town in Northern Yemen, and also has oil platforms, that's been fairly aggressive, their movements on both of these fronts.

    And I think we're going to have to test the proposition. They have sent messages indicating that they are prepared to do the heavy lifting for peace. Certainly, what we're seeing in the last couple of days doesn't augur well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Have the Houthis sent any messages to the United States privately, and does it matter, if their public messaging are these ongoing attacks?

  • Tim Lenderking:

    We have multiple ways of receiving messages from different organizations and multiple ways of sending messages to organizations.

    And in the Yemen context, we do want to keep the various channels open. They're going to be very important to us going forward.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Have the Houthis sent private messages?

  • Tim Lenderking:

    As I say, they have ways of getting messages to us.

    And so we have taken those. And we will do our best to work constructively with those messages and with the various groups in Yemen who are supportive of a peace process.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Your critics say that lifting the global terrorist organization label on the Houthis before they had to make any concessions means you have lost a chance for leverage to try and get them back to the negotiating table.

    Do you believe that you have lost some leverage by lifting that global terrorist organization label?

  • Tim Lenderking:

    I don't, in the end, think so.

    I think there was a decision, a realization by the new administration that the FTO designation was really a mixed bag, that, on the one hand, it memorialized certain activities of the Houthis that were terrorist in nature, their attacks on civilian infrastructure, their kidnapping of U.S. citizens, their close relationship with the IRGC.

    But the new administration asked, well, what does that give us in terms of benefit to the political process and benefit to other aspects of Yemen? And there was a quick realization that it's a net negative on the humanitarian space, and that, if we're going to make improvements in the humanitarian sphere, bearing in mind that Yemen is the world's greatest humanitarian disaster at this moment, we can't stress that system any further.

    So, that is, I think, a key factor in why the administration decided to undo this designation. It doesn't remove every sanction some of the Houthi leaders. Some of those remain from several years ago. So it's not a free pass at all.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As you know, Sanaa, the capital, the Houthis have their own administration. They have their own police. They levy taxes. And, of course, they continue to launch attacks both in Yemen and across the border in Saudi Arabia.

    You have put pressure on Saudi Arabia with some recent moves. What pressure on the Houthis is there to make any concessions?

  • Tim Lenderking:

    I think that the Houthis need to be tested, in terms of their stated commitments and the messages that they have sent that they are committed to a peace process and to the betterment of Yemen.

    And I think there are international actors here that we're going to be leaning on and looking toward who have influence over the Houthis to see what they can do as well.

    This is not something that United States can do alone. It's going to require very close coordination with the U.N. envoys, Martin Griffiths, with the Saudis, and with the neighboring countries as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the regional countries, of course, that has the most influence over the Houthis is Iran.

    Last night in Iraq, a Shia militia took credit for an attack that injured five Americans, including one U.S. service member. And those were rockets that we have seen before from Iran. So, do you believe that attack was by Iran? And what does it say to you about Iran's willingness to conduct diplomacy in the region?

  • Tim Lenderking:

    Certainly, when we look at Iran's behavior in the region, it's highly problematic and, in many cases, antithetical to the peace efforts that much of the rest of the world is trying to engender, so, whether you look at Iraq or Syria or other places where Iran uses proxy forces.

    And let it be known to the Iranians that if they want to do something positive for the region, Yemen is not a bad place for them to start. And that involves their relationship with the Houthis and the arming, the trading — the training and the embedding of the Houthis that they do.

    So, it would be an excellent way for Iran to show goodwill by working in this diplomatic space that I have described to bring about the kind of better result in Yemen that we're all seeking.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    During the campaign, as we saw in the story, President Biden referred to Saudi Arabia as a pariah and vowed to hold the kingdom accountable for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, who, of course, died in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul.

    How will the Biden administration hold Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, responsible for Jamal Khashoggi's death?

  • Tim Lenderking:

    Well, my writ at this point really focuses on Yemen.

    And in the Yemen conflict, you need Saudi Arabia. And they will have to play a leading role. After all, this is their backyard. This is the Gulf region's backyard. And just as we are — follow things that happen in our backyard very carefully, so must the Saudis and so will the Saudis.

    So, they will be a very strong partner in this effort, I'm convinced, and we will be able to maintain the president's commitments with regard to Saudi Arabia, while ensuring that the Yemen conflict is brought to a close. That is very much the goal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tim Lenderking, special envoy for Yemen, thank you very much.

  • Tim Lenderking:

    Thank you.

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