The outgoing administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has stepped up its pressure on Iran by imposing sanctions on the country's ambassador to Yemen's Huthi rebels.
The fresh sanctions, announced on December 8, target envoy Hassan Irlu as well as the Qom-based Al-Mustafa International University for recruiting members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Quds Force as part of an effort to destabilize the situation in Yemen and Syria.
The Huthis have been engaged in a bloody civil war in Yemen for the past five years, and the move was reportedly seen as a possible effort to force the group to reach a peace agreement.
Under the sanctions, any assets the blacklisted targets may have in the United States will be frozen and U.S. citizens will be barred from doing business with them.
"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.
The U.S. Treasury described Irlu as an official with the Quds Force, the elite foreign paramilitary and espionage arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and alleged that Mustafa International University was using its foreign branches as a recruitment platform.
The university, which has close links with Iran's Shi’ite clerical leadership, has allegedly been active in recruiting Pakistanis and Afghans to fight in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The moves come just over a month before Democratic President-elect Joe Biden is to take office and adds to Trump's recent efforts to step up pressure on governments his administration opposes.
In his statement, Pompeo said that through ambassador Irlu's presence in Yemen, the IRGC was "signaling its intent to increase support to the Huthis and further complicate international efforts to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict."
Trump is reportedly also considering designating the Huthi rebels, who share religious ties with Iran and control large areas of Yemen including the capital, as terrorists.
Members of the U.S. Democratic Party have warned against the move, fearing it would jeopardize relief efforts as Yemen suffers a humanitarian catastrophe brought on by a civil war involving the Huthis, the Yemeni government, a Saudi-led coalition, and other militant groups.
Before the sanctions were announced, Irlu wrote on Twitter that "what is happening in the Saudi siege & aggression against the Yemen is merely the implementation of the American Zionist policies."
The Quds Force has already been designated as a terrorist organization by the Trump administration.
In January, General Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander, was assassinated in a drone attack near Baghdad as he arrived for a visit to Iraq. The United States claimed responsibility for the attack.