Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Said Khatibzadeh announced Saturday that Hassan Eyrlou, plenipotentiary and extraordinary ambassador of Iran to Yemen, had arrived in Sanaa, which has been under control of the insurrectionist Ansar Allah Houthi movement since the Houthis seized control of the Yemeni capital in September 2014. Eyrlou’s arrival comes two months after the rebel movement appointed its first ambassador to Tehran.
“That Tehran would send an officer who had been associated with Qassem Suleimani to serve as Iran’s governor general in Sanaa, combined with recent Iranian statements regarding intentions to arm the Houthis, reveal the contours of the coming phase,” said Muammar Al-Eryani, information minister of the internationally-recognised government of Yemen that is currently based in Aden.
In a statement to the official Yemeni press agency, Al-Eryani added: “This escalation is an extension of the Iranian aggression that continues to kill and persecute the Yemeni people, conspire against Yemen’s and the region’s stability and security, and jeopardise its international interests as it has been doing for the past five years.”
The Yemeni information minister added that, according to available intel, Hassan Eyrlou was a major Iranian religious leader and a military officer who had commanded training exercises on anti-aircraft weapons and had been responsible for the training of terrorist activists and Hizbullah elements in the Yahunar military camp in Karaj, on the outskirts of Tehran. In Al-Eryani’s opinion, the appointment of the new Iranian ambassador to the Houthis added nothing of note to the relationship between Tehran and the Houthis, or to the course of the battle. It merely affirmed that Iran was fully responsible for the Houthi coup and dictated the Houthi militia’s political and military decisions, he said.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Hadrami met with EU ambassadors to Yemen Monday to discuss developments in Yemen, according to a Foreign Ministry statement. He also raised the question of the “infiltration” of Iranian operatives into Yemen, which was understood as a reference to the new Iranian ambassador.
Houthi Foreign Minister Hisham Sharaf confirmed the ambassador’s arrival in Sanaa. Signalling that Syria and Qatar would follow suit, he said that other diplomatic missions were on their way.
Eyrlou’s arrival in Yemen stirred considerable speculation over what some quarters of the press described as another Iranian “diplomatic scandal”. The Iranian Foreign Ministry gave no indication how its ambassador travelled to Sanaa given the almost total air blockade. At first some thought he might have been smuggled in with a fake passport during the recent prisoner exchanges between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. The prisoner exchange operation occasioned the first intensive aerial activity in Yemen for some time. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths immediately refuted the possibility that Eyrlou could have travelled on a UN aircraft.
Other observers were not surprised by Eyrlou’s appearance in Sanaa. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been infiltrating into Yemen since the outset of the Houthi coup, so the arrival of one more officer was nothing out of the ordinary. It merely fits the pattern of the IRGC’s clandestine movements, whether to or from Yemen, or to or from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, according to some opinion.
The appointment of an ambassador to Sanaa marks the beginning of a new phase in Tehran’s relations with the Ansar Allah movement, especially given Eyrlou’s IRGC background and his “plenipotentiary” authorities.
Tehran “sent over a governor general, not an ambassador”, scoffed many Yemenis, angered by this latest move in support of the illegitimate government in Sanaa.
The appointment definitely reflects a shift in Tehran’s priorities. Until this point, although IRGC operatives were engaged in Yemen, as Western intelligence reports have observed, Iranian diplomacy has taken the lead in the management of the Yemeni question. At least this is the impression given by the statements of Iranian officials and many Houthi leaders, as well as by the spotlight on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif whose his first-hand involvement in the negotiations in Stockholm (2018) suggested that Tehran was focused, first and foremost, on the political settlement process. The appointment of a “plenipotentiary and extraordinary” ambassador to Yemen now signals that the IRGC has decided to take the driver’s seat in Tehran’s handling of the Yemeni question.
The timing is another important factor. The lifting of the UN arms embargo on Iran last week, in line with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the “P5+1” now gives Iran greater leeway to arm its proxies. Although sophisticated Iranian weapons found their way into the hands of the Houthis, as well as Hizbullah and Iranian-affiliated militias in Iraq and Syria, after Tehran signed the P5+1 agreement, Iranian military aid to the Houthis is now likely to increase.
Also, following the Houthi militia’s losses on many fronts, particularly in Al-Jawf governorate, the influence of the highly professional IRGC on Houthi command and control structures will become increasingly pronounced in the coming phase, during which analysts anticipate a greater focus on drone and missile offensives.
The Iranians and Houthis will still need to find alternative arms smuggling routes in light of the Arab Coalition’s control over the main ports in Yemen and US and European monitoring of Yemen’s southern and western coasts. Judging by recent Houthi military movements, the Houthis’ stocks of Iranian missiles have diminished. They have come to rely more on booby-trapped drones than at the beginning of this year.
Although observers expect an increase in Houthi threats abroad bearing an Iranian fingerprint, they believe that Iranian strategists will prioritise rebuilding the Houthis’ military capacities, which have suffered from a series of setbacks on several fronts. This is, of course, a major purpose of the IRGC’s new hands-on approach in Yemen.
However, Eyrlou will have other tasks that Iranian ambassadors generally perform. One is to build pro-Iranian espionage networks in Yemen. Another is to promote pro-Houthi and pro-Iranian propaganda. This is often conveyed through Shia religious activities, which have been on the rise recently and are likely to increase.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly