Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi has formally requested that the United Nations brand the Shiite Houthi rebels a terrorist organization. The group has kept him out of the nation’s capital, Sanaa, since 2015.
The Sunni-led Yemeni government sent a letter to the UN Security Council during the weekend decrying various attacks by Houthi rebels against government forces nationwide and accused the Shiite government of Iran of arming and emboldening the Houthi rebels into committing more flagrant acts of terrorism. The Hadi government is aligned with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s longtime regional rival.
The formal request followed the publication of a UN report accusing the Houthi rebels of extraordinary acts of violence against both government fighters and civilians. The report also accused former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh of cooperating with the Houthis and aiding their use of torture against captured opponents.
Highlighting the abuse of civilians by Houthi rebels, the Norwegian Refugee Council announced on Monday that Houthi rebels abducted twelve of its members last week as punishment for the group’s having attempted to distribute humanitarian aid to civilians. The Houthis claimed that the Saudi government paid for the aid, rendering it unfit for distribution. The United Nations estimated earlier this month that twelve million of the nation’s 19 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, more than 60 percent.
Saudi Arabia’s calls for the UN to intervene against Houthi activities and the exiled government in Aden’s demands to brand them a terrorist organization appear not only to target the Houthi faction but its main benefactor, Iran. Shortly before this plea to the United Nations, the Saudi government accused Iran of exporting terrorism at unparalleled rates. “Iran remains the single main sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a security conference in Munich, Germany, last week. He added that “Iran is the only one in the Middle East that hasn’t been targeted by Islamic State and al-Qaeda.”
In response to Saudi critiques, the Iranian government has accused Riyadh of working “hand-in-glove” with the region’s only democracy, Israel. Both the Iranian government and the Houthi rebels oppose the existence of Israel viscerally and harbor strong anti-American sentiment.
Iran routinely sends weapons shipments to Yemen to help the Houthis against a Saudi-led coalition that continues to wage war against them on behalf of the nation’s legitimate government in Aden.
The Houthis’ official slogan borrows somewhat from common Iranian propaganda tropes: “Allahu Akbar, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The slogan has garnered the Houthis so much international negative attention that the rebels officially apologized to the United States, according to Arabic news source Al-Quds al-Arabi, claiming it was meant for “domestic consumption” only. The Houthis have not issued similar statements to Israel or the global Jewish population.
The reported apology rings somewhat hollow given recent reports that Houthi rebels have been attempting attacks on American ships in the region. Last month, the Houthis attacked a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea, killing two. A Pentagon official told Fox News that the Houthis appeared to believe the ship was American: “U.S. defense analysts believe those behind the attack either thought the bomber was striking an American warship or that this was a ‘dress rehearsal’ similar to the attack on the USS Cole.”
Multiple attempts to end the conflict via peace talks have failed, with one early UN-sponsored attempt ending in a fistfight and the latest attempt, by then-Secretary of State John Kerry, met with extreme apathy. “The government was not aware of nor is it interested in what Secretary Kerry announced,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi told reporters after asked about a Kerry-organized attempt to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.