Three key factors driving U.S. debate on naming Yemen's Houthis terrorist group - U.S. diplomat

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The targeting of civilians by Yemen’s Houthis, their “deepening” ties with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and use of kidnappings are driving a Trump administration debate on naming the movement a foreign terrorist organization, a U.S. diplomat said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Police officers salute during the funeral of Houthi fighters killed in recent fighting against forces of the internationally-recognized government, in Sanaa, Yemen November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

“If those things weren’t happening, there would be no debate,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Timothy Lenderking told reporters in a teleconference on U.S. policy in the Gulf.

His comments were among the most extensive made publicly by a U.S. official on the deliberations on blacklisting the Iran-backed Houthi movement, which has been battling a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen since 2015.

The United Nations is working to restart talks on ending the deadlocked conflict – widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – that has battered the region’s poorest country, creating what aid groups call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 80% of the population of 28.5 million requires help.

Both sides have caused civilian casualties. Riyadh’s role has helped stoke bipartisan congressional anger with Saudi Arabia. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledges to reassess relations with Riyadh, which has enjoyed a near free pass from President Donald Trump.

Lenderking, declining to detail internal administration deliberations, outlined what he said were key reasons for considering designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization.

“The Houthis do things that are akin to behavior of a terrorist organization. They target civilians,” he said. “They use kidnapping as a tool of war. If anything, they seem to be deepening their relationship with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which from our point of view is a designated terrorist organization.”

“If they are to play as a legitimate political actor inside Yemen, we would see that these activities would have to stop,” he said.

U.N., European, some U.S. and regional officials, and humanitarian groups oppose blacklisting the Houthis as that would bring sanctions that could interfere with international aid deliveries as famine threatens Yemen.

They also fear it could harden the Houthis - who deny being puppets of Tehran - against restarting peace talks.

Writing by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Marguerita Choy