President Donald Trump‘s administration is entering his final week in office amid a flurry of foreign policy activity, even as the president faces possible impeachment and widespread criticism at home amid chaotic scenes of insurrection in the nation’s capital.
This week, the administration designated Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and the Yemeni Houthi militant organization as a terrorist organization. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also lifted curbs on official U.S. contacts with Taiwanese officials this weekend, and on Tuesday accused Iran of becoming a new “home base” for the Al-Qaeda terrorist group.
The cascade of developments has angered American allies and enemies, who are awaiting Trump’s departure and preparing for a new administration led by President-Elect Joe Biden. But Trump’s activities since his election loss look set to hamper Biden’s efforts abroad.
One unnamed U.S. official speaking with Foreign Policy described the actions as “fire sale diplomacy.”
Sunday’s announcement to list the Iran-backed Houthi movement—officially called Ansar Allah—as a terrorist group prompted concern at home and abroad over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen, where after years of war more than 10 million people are on the edge of famine, according to the United Nations.
A European Union statement said the decision to blacklist the Houthis “risks rendering U.N.-led efforts to reach a comprehensive solution to the Yemen conflict more difficult.”
The statement said the American move “will complicate the necessary diplomatic engagement with Ansar Allah and the work of the international community on political, humanitarian and developmental matters.”
The humanitarian situation is especially pressing, the statement said. “The designation is likely to have disruptive effects on the delivery of humanitarian aid funded by the international community and further aggravate the economic crisis which has resulted from over five years of conflict.”
International aid groups also expressed their dismay. The Norwegian Refugee Council said the decision will “hamstring the ability of aid agencies to respond, and without additional safeguards and broader exemptions for the commercial sector, Yemen’s faltering economy will be dealt a further devastating blow.”
Cuba was then added to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list on Monday, where it joins Syria, Iran and North Korea. The Trump administration has been rolling back ties with Cuba and undoing the bilateral thaw under President Barack Obama, much to the dismay of liberals in the U.S. and allies in the EU, which celebrated a landmark deal with Cuba in 2017.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez dismissed the decision as “political opportunism” which would be “recognized by those who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims.”
Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement he was “outraged” at the designation, particularly coming so soon after the insurrection and storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. last week.
“It is essential that the State Sponsor of Terrorism list be used judiciously to maintain its seriousness and integrity and that a country is never added to the list unless it meets the legal standard,” Meeks said. “I urge President-elect Biden to add the reversal of today’s foreign policy failure to his long ‘to do’ list when he takes office.”
Pompeo then told reporters Wednesday that Iran has become the new “home base” of the Al-Qaeda group, claiming that the terrorist organization is embedded in Tehran and allowed to operate there by the regime. The claims were dismissed as “warmongering lies” by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Pompeo confirmed that top Al-Qaeda commander Abu Muhammad al-Masri was killed in Tehran in August—reportedly by Israeli operatives—where he had been given residency and protection by the Iranian regime.
But Pompeo did not offer any significant new evidence of Al-Qaeda having shifted key operations to Iran, even if some of its members are living there. The group still has a significant presence in the Syrian province of Idlib, Yemen, and the Sahel region of north Africa, all regions where it continues to hold territory and launch armed operations. The same is not true of Iran.
Pompeo’s claims were met with skepticism, and—like expanded sanctions on Iranian targets and military posturing in the Persian Gulf—appeared designed at least in part to undermine Biden’s expected efforts to re-engage with Tehran.
Among those who dismissed the allegations was Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zamir Kabulov, who told Sputnik the claims were “absolutely unsubstantiated and unreasonable.” Asked if he had seen any new evidence, Kabulov responded: “There is absolutely no information.”
Russia is among the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, from which Trump withdrew in 2018. Along with fellow signatories China, France, Germany, and the U.K., Russia has consistently advocated for Iran and the U.S. to return to compliance with the JCPOA.
Russia, China and the European parties have repeatedly criticized Trump and his aides for their “maximum pressure” strategy, which seeks to collapse the Iranian economy and isolate the regime to force negotiations for a new, more restrictive nuclear deal.
The Trump administration has failed to garner allied and U.N. support for new sanctions on Iran related to its violation of the JCPOA, and for the extension of an arms embargo on Tehran. The Iranian regime celebrated the U.S. failure as an American defeat and proof of the Trump’s administration’s isolation on the world stage.
On Saturday, the State Department infuriated Beijing by lifting curbs on official contacts between American and Taiwanese officials; part of the U.S.’ strategy to avoid provoking China while still retaining contact with Taipei.
China considers Taiwan a wayward province and is committed to bringing it under Chinese Communist Party control, by force if necessary. The U.S. has long supported Taiwan with weapons sales and military deployments, but does not officially recognize the democratic island.
In a statement, Pompeo said the State Department had long “created complex internal restrictions to regulate our diplomats, servicemembers, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts.”
“The United States government took these actions unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing,” he added. “No more.”
Chinese state media quickly accused Pompeo of “seeking to maliciously inflict a long-lasting scar on China-U.S. ties.” One writer for the official Xinhua News Agency said Sunday that Pompeo “is only interested in stoking unwarranted confrontations, and has no interest in world peace.”