The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on Iran’s envoy to Yemen’s Huthi rebels, stepping up pressure as President Donald Trump considers a controversial designation of the insurgents as terrorists.
The Treasury Department designated under counterterrorism laws Hasan Irlu, described by Iran as its ambassador to Yemen, where the Huthis control broad swathes of territory including the capital Sanaa.
“Iran’s support for the Huthis fuels the conflict in Yemen and exacerbates the country’s instability,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
Through Irlu’s presence in Yemen, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards elite Qods Force “is signaling its intent to increase support to the Huthis and further complicate international efforts to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict,” Pompeo said.
US officials say Iran has provided military support to the Huthis, with which it shares religious ties, although analysts debate the extent of involvement, with some seeing Tehran primarily as interested in bogging down its regional rival Saudi Arabia.
Yemen has been the scene of a humanitarian catastrophe as a Saudi-led coalition targets the Huthis, with a heavy toll on civilians including destruction of schools and hospitals.
President Donald Trump’s administration, which considers Iran a top enemy, is considering in its waning days declaring the Huthis to be a terrorist organization as a way to apply new pressure.
Humanitarian groups and lawmakers of President-elect Joe Biden’s Democratic Party have warned against the move, fearing it would jeopardize relief efforts as international aid groups would fear US legal repercussions.
Irlu, writing on Twitter shortly before his designation, denounced US support for the Saudi-led coalition.
“What is happening in the Saudi siege & aggression against the Yemen is merely the implementation of the American Zionist policies,” he wrote.
The Trump administration has already designated the Qods Force as a terrorist organization and in January killed its commander, Qasem Soleimani, as he visited Iraq.
The administration separately on Tuesday slapped sanctions on Al-Mustafa International University, an Iranian-based institution with affiliates around the world.
The Treasury Department said the university, which has close links with Iran’s Shiite clerical leadership, had been active in recruiting Pakistanis and Afghans to fight in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.
The sanctions freeze any US assets of their targets and criminalize transactions, effectively cutting them off from much of the international banking system.