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The U.S. has designated Houthis as terrorists once again

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK, to news now that the U.S. is blacklisting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels again, this time to put pressure on them to stop attacking ships in the Red Sea. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the new diplomatic campaign to ease one of many flashpoints in the Middle East.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.S. military has been striking Houthi targets in Yemen. Now diplomats are trying to use the levers they have to punish the Houthis, placing them on a list of specially designated global terrorists. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller says this is in response to Houthi drone and missile strikes on ships in the Red Sea.

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MATTHEW MILLER: The United States, with allies and partners around the world, has made clear that there must be consequences for those attacks. And today's designation follows on our military action last week to hold the Houthis accountable for their actions.

KELEMEN: It's been a difficult balancing act for the Biden administration. Three years ago, it took the Houthis off a different terrorism blacklist to facilitate aid to the war-torn nation and to help move along a peace process between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led military coalition. The new terrorism designation goes into effect a month from now and is set up in a way that should allow aid and diplomacy to continue. Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, says the latest move is mostly symbolic.

GERALD FEIERSTEIN: Shipping arms to the Houthis is already banned by the U.N. Security Council. Houthi leaders are sanctioned, Houthi financiers are sanctioned. So there's really nothing much that a designation adds to any of that. Houthis don't travel, they don't have bank accounts overseas, they don't really do very much.

KELEMEN: So he thinks the U.S. is just grasping at straws, trying to figure out ways to influence the Houthis, who control much of Yemen. The Houthis say they're attacking ships in the Red Sea to protest Israel's war in Gaza. And Feierstein, who's with the Middle East Institute, says the U.S. strikes and the terrorist designation just play into their hands.

FEIERSTEIN: Their position on Gaza is very popular with Yemenis, even with Yemenis who don't support the Houthis. They think that it's good for them to raise their regional profile and to be seen as a core member of the Iranian axis of resistance.

KELEMEN: So he doesn't think they'll be deterred by sanctions or even the recent U.S. military strikes. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he thinks the best way to isolate Houthis, as well as Iran and other Iranian proxies, is to integrate Israel into the region. And Blinken believes that Arab states are still willing to normalize ties with Israel if there's a real pathway to a Palestinian state.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: This is actually clear when you look at it and see it, the problem is getting from here to there. And of course, it requires very difficult, challenging decisions. It requires a mindset that's open to that perspective.

KELEMEN: Blinken was speaking in Davos, Switzerland, where his Iranian counterpart was also making the rounds, warning of more intense conflicts in the region if Israel does not stop its military campaign in Gaza. In the meantime, the Houthis continue their attacks in the Red Sea. And while Ambassador Feierstein doesn't think they want to return to the war in Yemen, he says there are risks of miscalculations. He says a successful attack on a U.S. Navy ship could push the U.S. to a more aggressive posture.

FEIERSTEIN: So it's those kinds of things that I think are more worrisome than, you know, seeing either side really going in for all-out war.

KELEMEN: U.N. officials are worried about something else - U.S. sanctions could impact their work. Yemen is highly dependent on international aid. U.S. officials insist there will be carve-outs to make sure Yemeni civilians don't suffer more.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD, GHOSTFACE KILLAH AND ELZHI SONG, "GUNSHOWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.