Hasan Irlu was appointed by Iran as its ambassador to the Houthi group in Yemen. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer is in the headlines because the Houthis have asked the opposing Arab coalition to allow him to leave the country and return to Tehran.
I do not know if the Wall Street Journal is accurate in its account of Riyadh's approval of the Houthis' request. This was apparently conditional on the release of prominent Saudi prisoners held by the Houthis, and that Irlu would depart either through Oman or via Iraq.
Moreover, I will not be drawn into the interpretations offered by some who say that negotiations regarding Irlu's departure from Sanaa occurred within the context of the Houthi decision to sever ties with Iran to the extent that no new Iranian representative, whether military or political, will be accepted. However, I will not completely rule out their credibility.
Others suggest that the controversial Iranian figure's departure from Sanaa reflects the Houthi desire to get rid of him due to his influence on the hierarchical structure of the de facto authority in Yemen, which is dominated by elements from Saada Governorate, the stronghold of the Houthis in the north west of the country. He apparently favours some figures in the hierarchy over others, which is considered to be a direct conflict with the leader of the group, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi.
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It is not possible to ignore everything that is said about Irlu's role in Sanaa, but his presence has become problematic. However, once he has left Yemen it does not mean that Iranian influence will be affected greatly. The Houthis, though, want to be able to present enough evidence to Saudi Arabia to enable a deal to be agreed on ending the war with a significant Houthi political and military presence remaining in place.
The reality is that Irlu spent just over a year in Yemen in the guise of an ambassador, although diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed due to Iran's stance against the Yemeni state and Tehran's open support for the Houthi coup. It seems that he has come to the end of the time allotted to him in Sanaa by Iran without achieving all of the goals for which he was sent. The most prominent of these was the overthrow of the Marib Governorate, which might have changed Irlu's career within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its external strike unit the Quds Force. It would also have portrayed Iran as a state that always wins its regional battles.
Why, though, is Iran insisting that the departure of its illegitimate ambassador be so public and agreed on by the Arab coalition, even though he entered Yemen in secret? The answer, I believe, is related to Tehran's desire to push Saudi Arabia to normalise Iran's illegal measures in Yemen, including a military officer's appointment as an ambassador despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations between Yemen and Iran.
Although Saudi Arabia has neither confirmed nor denied the report in the Wall Street Journal, the publication of such news in US newspapers is usual. They are often used as channels to pass on what countries wish to disclose gradually. Hence, the leaks which claim that Irlu has already left Sanaa on an Iraqi military aircraft and arrived in Basra gain credibility from previous leaks about Saudi Arabia insisting on his departure from Yemen via Oman or Iraq.
Saudi Arabia can give such permission if it achieves the release of the prominent prisoners held by the Houthis, but this will mean that Riyadh has normalised Iranian behaviour that violates international resolutions. This arguably gives us an idea about the worst-case deal that the Yemeni people may have to face in order to end the war in their country, as the Saudis see nothing to prevent them from moving forward on the future of the war, away from the legitimate government which claims that the Kingdom went into Yemen and fought in support of its legitimacy.
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For the Houthis, Iran's role in the Yemen war is still far more valuable than any deal Riyadh can provide, if it comes before the Houthis achieve all of their military and political objectives.
This reinforces my conviction that Hasan Irlu's departure from Sanaa, whether it has already happened or not, may be linked to Iran's need to retain its influence through other figures, of which there are many. This makes more sense to me than the Houthis trying to reassure Riyadh that they are the only party in Yemen with which a peace agreement can be negotiated.
The Houthis have always made offers to complete such deals, although any agreement will begin with stopping the war, ending the military siege imposed by the coalition, and opening Sanaa Airport. Only then will they start to think about negotiations with the other parties in Yemen, a list which does not include the legitimate government.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 19 December 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.