In an expected move, although its announcement sparked a lot of controversy, on 27 October 2020, Hassan Irloo, who was recently appointed by Tehran as its ambassador to Sanaa, the Yemeni capital that is under the control of the Houthi Ansar Allah (Supporters of God) group, handed over his credentials to the foreign minister of the so-called the Salvation Government of the Houthis that is not internationally recognised.

Ten days earlier, the Iranian Fars News Agency (FNA) had quoted the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh as saying that his country had “dispatched a new ambassador to Sanaa”, adding that “Mr Hassan Irloo is the plenipotentiary and extraordinary ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Yemen”. Khatibzadeh confirmed at the time that Irloo had already "arrived" in the Yemeni capital, without revealing the date of his arrival.

Background and context

Expectations regarding Iran's recent diplomatic approach, which blatantly contradicts international law obligations and established norms, can be traced back to August 2019. At that time, the Houthi Ansar Allah group revealed that it had appointed one of its prominent media officials, namely Ibrahim Muhammad al-Dailami, as its plenipotentiary and extraordinary ambassador to Iran. At that time, the former Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted as confirming that Tehran is in the process of taking a similar step, which was promptly condemned and denounced by the internationally recognized Yemeni government. However, that Iranian step, for unclear reasons, was not taken immediately, and its official announcement was delayed for more than a year.

During that period, it was noticed that the Houthi ambassador’s movements and his meetings in Tehran, especially after he handed over his credentials to the Iranian President and received the Yemeni embassy headquarters in November 2019, gained some relative momentum over time, taking different dimensions and forms, under clear sponsorship and arrangement by the Iranian authorities. This revealed the existence of clear intentions and serious efforts to transform Tehran into a regional platform for political and diplomatic mobility aimed at establishing the Houthi group as a de facto authority eager to be recognised internationally. Within arrangements that are directly carried out and supervised by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the man began at times to meet a number of representatives of Western and Arab countries accredited to Tehran, such as the Swiss Ambassador and the Chargé d'Affairs of the Libyan Embassy, as well as ambassadors of Latin American countries and some representatives of international humanitarian organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). At other times, he repeatedly met, alone or within a larger delegation of the group, with senior Iranian leaders, mainly the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, Defence Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami, and other officials. In his alleged diplomatic capacity, al-Dailami has been announcing the conclusion of "official" agreements between the authority of his group and the Iranian side, including on strengthening military, industrial and agricultural cooperation.

Irloo in Sanaa: an ambassador with a bright military background!

One of the issues that caused great controversy and debate in Yemeni circles regarding the appointment of the new Iranian ambassador in Sanaa related to the manner he entered the country. It was understood from the statement of the Iranian Foreign Ministry's spokesman that Hassan Irloo has been dispatched to Yemen recently, which opened the door to speculation and to many conflicting interpretations regarding the way in which Irloo arrived to the Yemeni territories. The matter reached the point of accusing the United Nations (UN) of playing a role in smuggling the Iranian "diplomat" and bringing him by air via one of its planes into Yemen, but the international organisation vehemently denied this.

The most plausible, and logical for that matter, explanation is that the appointment of Irloo as ambassador and the conferral of this respectable diplomatic capacity on him were intended to provide him with a political cover and confer an official character and "legitimacy” on his presence – which is believed by many analysts to have preceded his appointment by several years – in Yemen from now on, thus allowing him greater freedom of movement and ensuring that his personal security is not targeted, as happened in the case of his companion General Abdul Reza Shahlai, with the possibility of his subsequent removal from the country more smoothly than if he remained in the main capacity in which he came to the Yemeni territories, that is as a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and one of the important officials responsible for managing the operations of the Quds Force in Yemen, which was confirmed by the US State Department in its comment on the news of Irloo’s appointment as Iran's ambassador to the de facto authorities in Sanaa.

In any case, the scarce information currently available on Hassan Irloo (born in 1959) shows that he has never worked in any diplomatic position (which explains why the Iranian Foreign Ministry did not publish any information about him) and that his main expertise relates to the military and security fields. Some sources indicate that he “played a prominent role in managing the external operations of the IRGC Quds Force in Iraq, Lebanon, and later on in Yemen”. His name also appeared in media reports in 1999 as a military expert and commander of anti-aircraft weapons training, and a senior religious guide in the IRGC. Other reports confirm that Irloo is "the brother of the prominent IRGC commander Hussein Irloo, who was killed in the Iraq-Iran war in the mid-1980s", that he belongs to a "very popular family in the city of Qarchak, and that the Iranian government has named several streets after his two [brothers] Hussein Irloo and Asghar Irloo and their mother, nicknamed the “Patient Stone”.

In light of this background, it became possible to understand some of the ambiguities that Iran tried to confer on the issue of the appointment of Irloo as its ambassador to its Houthi allies. In addition to the fact that announcing this approach – especially in light of the manner in which it was reflected in the media and its different repercussions in the public opinion circles – gives Tehran and its allies in Sanaa what they think is another "media and diplomatic victory" that is added in their favour and that strengthens their political and negotiating cards, it suggests that the two parties are the ones who are currently taking the lead in managing the conflict with their opponents in Yemen. In this context, it was noteworthy that the Iranian announcement of this step came a few weeks after the spokesman for the Iranian General Staff of the Armed Forces Abu al-Fadl Shikaraji acknowledged, for the first time, that they had “transferred” to the Houthi Ansar Allah group their experience in defence technology, especially in the field of manufacturing and developing missiles and drones (a statement he made to the Iranian state television on 23 September 2020).

Other diplomatic and political implications

This development also has other implications and connotations related to the fluctuating Iranian diplomatic involvement in Yemen. This is the first time in nearly eight years that Sanaa has received an Iranian ambassador, that is since the legitimate President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi expressed his refusal to approve the accreditation of a new ambassador of the Islamic Republic in Sanaa in protest against the growing negative Iranian interference in his country’s affairs (Mahmoud Hassan Ali Zadeh ​​was the last Iranian ambassador in Sanaa and his term expired in June 2013). In addition, with its latest move, Iran became the first country to appoint an ambassador in the areas under the control of the Houthi Ansar Allah group. The Iranian diplomatic representation in the Yemeni capital during this period remained relatively low, being headed by a chargé d'affaires with limited powers. This post was assumed respectively by Morteza Abedini (2013-2016) and Muhammad Farhat (2017-2020).

By granting Hassan Irloo the status of "Ambassador Extraordinary", Iran is giving a clear indication of its future intentions towards Yemen and its crisis and Iran’s position on both, considering that this rank in the diplomatic tradition is the highest among the ranks of ambassadors, which is a matter of great significance. An Ambassador Extraordinary is superior to an ordinary ambassador: while the latter performs a specific purpose, the former enjoys “extensive powers, including the right to conclude agreements in the name of the state or body he/she represents. In other words, the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary is usually granted to a person assigned to special tasks for his country with other countries or international organisations. It often gives him/her extraordinary capabilities to perform his/her mission".

In this way, Iran is not only raising its diplomatic representation in this war-torn country to the highest level in decades, it is also deliberately converting its official recognition of the authority of its Houthi allies into a new tool to increase its diplomatic and strategic capital in the context of its aggressive regional policy. On the one hand, Tehran is trying to emphasise its own importance as a pivotal player in the protracted and increasingly complicated Yemeni conflict, and that reaching a comprehensive and lasting solution to this conflict requires the acceptance of Iran's presence in this capacity and according to that definition, as a prerequisite for moving forward along the path of settlement and putting an end to the war. On the other hand, Iran continues to raise the ceiling of its relationship with its Houthi allies to the highest level, on the political, security, military, economic and ideological fronts, in a move that indicates that Iran had already settled the results of the ongoing conflict in Yemen in their favour (and in its own favour, by extension), so that it now considers that the Houthis have the upper hand in determining the fate of this country forever, and that there is no future for President Hadi's government in it at all.

Therefore, Tehran's future approaches towards Yemen will likely include the conclusion and signing of more agreements and partnerships with the de facto authorities in Sanaa, and the expansion of the circles of their alliance relations to include new areas. They will also include a greater effort to incorporate Yemen into Tehran’s advanced security circles and areas of geopolitical preoccupation. This would facilitate Tehran’s endeavours to establish more and broader interactions with close regional arenas which it has started to place in the core of its emerging vital sphere, including, inter alia, the southern Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea, and the East Africa regions. While this is certainly an ambitious strategic goal, it is very doubtful that the countries of the region and the major powers that reject Iran's expansionist tendency and detrimental role in the region will accept it or allow it to be enforced with ease.

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