November 20, 2020

Middle East Roundup: Iran Makes Clear Desire to Return to JCPOA & Designation of the Houthis

This week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sent Iran’s clearest signal yet that it is still willing to return to its commitments under the JCPOA if the U.S does the same. Also, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is attempting to fast-track the terrorist designation of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Please see a breakdown of events and our analysis below: 

Iranian Foreign Minister Sets Out Options For U.S. Return to JCPOA

  • Iran’s Clearest Comments Yet of Desire to Return to the Deal
    • In a televised interview with the Iran newspaper on Nov. 17th, Iranian Foreign Minister set out steps for a US reentry: “If America implements its commitments under [UNSCR] 2231, we will implement our commitments under the JCPOA. This is the first [step].” He went on to say that this “can be done automatically” and “does not require new negotiations.” UNSCR 2231 is the resolution that codified the JCPOA at the UN Security Council.

    • He then laid out a second step, stating that “if America wants to become a member of the JCPOA, which is what Trump destroyed, then we are ready to negotiate how America can become a JCPOA member. As such, America is not in a position to set conditions.”
    • The Iranian Foreign Minister’s comments are the most extensive any Iranian government official has given so far concerning Iran’s position on the incoming Biden administration potentially reentering the JCPOA.

    • The interview comes after it was revealed that President Trump sought military options to strike Iran during the week of November 9th but was reportedly advised against striking Iran’s nuclear facilities by his advisors. The report suggests that missile strikes inside of Iran have, for now, been put off the table, but that Mr. Trump may seek to strike Iran in other ways before he leaves office.

  • Key Takeaways

    • Zarif’s comments are a major indication that Iran is still willing to return to compliance with the JCPOA if the U.S. upholds its commitments, mirroring the position staked out by President Elect Biden and his team.

    • Given that there are no formal procedures guiding a party returning to the JCPOA, Zarif’s comments can be seen as seeking to shape the terms around future negotiations. Two options are set forth by Zarif, including informal implementation and formal reentry, the latter of which would involve negotiations.

    • In differentiating between the US formally reentering the JCPOA and complying with the mandates of the agreement, Zarif is opening the door to a quick return to compliance with the deal that could avoid avoiding a more politically contentious debate.

    • Domestically, the Rouhani administration could want to avoid direct negotiations with the U.S. as a result of the toxic environment the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy has created for those willing to engage with the West in Iran. 
    • Biden’s team is unlikely to engage in reciprocal public diplomacy when the Trump administration is still in office. However, it will be interesting to watch America’s erstwhile negotiating partners in Europe, who view Iran as a key part of restoring Transatlantic cooperation.

Trump Administration Seeks to Designate Houthi Rebels As Terrorists Before Leaving Office

  • Designation Would be Seen as Part of Escalating Campaign Against Iran
    • On November 16th, reports surfaced that the Trump administration was planning to accelerate its efforts to designate Ansar Hezbollah, more commonly known as the Houthis, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The Houthis, who now control over half of Yemen and its capital Sana’a, have waged a five years-long war against the Saudi-backed government of exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

    • According to a diplomatic source, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has been attempting to have the designation “fast-tracked” as “part of the scorched-earth policy” the administration is pursuing before they leave office. In anticipation of the designation, the UN has begun rotating out U.S. staff from Yemen for fear of potential retaliation for the designation.

    • UN officials have lobbied the Trump administration for months to reverse course, fearing that it may damage their diplomatic attempts to end the civil war and make it more difficult for humanitarian aid to reach Yemenis.

    • Career officials at the State Department and DOD have also voiced concerns about the implications of the designation. The heads of top humanitarian organizations, including Oxfam America and Save the Children, sent a letter to Pompeo on Nov. 16 in a last-ditch attempt to urge him to reconsider the decision.

    • Saudi Arabia has also pushed for the designation over the last year in hopes it would aid their efforts to undermine the Houthis’ political legitimacy. Secretary Pompeo is in the middle of a diplomatic tour of the Middle East, his final stop being in Riyadh, in what many see as the Trump administration’s final attempts to escalate their maximum pressure strategy against Iran.

    • Since the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign was imposed on Iran, the relationship between Iran and the Houthis has accelerated, with Iran having sent its first ambassador to the Houthi-held capital of Sana’a in late October.  According to UN reports in late 2019, the U.S. seized a shipment of weapons destined for the Houthis that contained anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and small arms that were of “Iranian origin.”
  • Key Takeaways
    • Similar to the designation of the IRGC as an FTO last year, this designation would do nothing to limit the Houthis’s military position or its growing control in Yemen. Instead, it serves only as a poison pill for the incoming Biden administration to end the war in Yemen while making it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to carry out their vital work.

    • Designating the Houthis as an FTO would not just sanction individuals in the group but would subject anyone who provides support to the group to criminal penalties, including humanitarian organizations. Yemen is already suffering from donor fatigue, a naval blockade, and fluid battle lines, all of which have limited the space for humanitarian organizations to operate. If carried out, the FTO designation would further limit access to aid for civilians in Houthi-controlled territories, an area where the majority of the population lives.
    • In the meantime, Saudi Arabia seems to be playing a double game. On one hand, they have offered to sign a ceasefire with the Houthis if they also agree to a buffer zone along the Yemen-Saudi border. On the other hand, they have also pushed for the FTO designation over the last year in hopes it would undermine the Houthis’ political legitimacy and pressure the Houthis to accept a deal more to Riyadh’s liking.

    • The Trump administration has sought to undermine President-Elect Biden’s Iran policy at every turn. While their ‘flood’ of sanctions is a central piece of this strategy to limit prospects of Biden returning to the Iran deal, every radical step the Trump administration takes in the region seems targeted towards locking Biden into a failed policy. Caught in the middle are millions of Yemenis who are experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.


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