On December 22, Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei wrote about "the martyrdom-like death of the hardworking, productive ambassador of Iran to Yemen, Hasan Irloo." He said he offered "condolences and congratulations to his family and diligent, like-minded people. His honorable record includes much political work, diplomatic efforts and social activities."
Irloo's death has led to some controversy because it is unclear how he died, and it has shed light on Iran's commitment to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis have been increasingly backed by Iran since 2015. They have received weapons, including ballistic missile and drone technology, from Iran. They have struck frequently at Saudi Arabia and also threaten US and Saudi partners and allies.
In the last several years the Houthis have also increasingly threatened Israel and been working with other Iranian proxies and allies, such as Hezbollah. The Houthis' official slogan includes threats and curses to Jews and Israel. The US briefly declared the Houthis a terrorist group. In 2015 Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab countries to intervene in Yemen to stop the Houthis taking Aden. That war has ground on for years. Yemen has suffered greatly.
Back on December 17, The Wall Street Journal reported that Irloo was being pushed out of Yemen at the behest of the Houthis due to supposed tensions between the Houthis and Iran. A Western official and some other source from the region apparently confirmed this. This came after mid-November reports that an IRGC commander in Syria had also been asked to leave by the Assad regime.
This came as the Assad regime had welcomed the UAE and there was talk of more Arab states normalizing with Syria. Damascus is backed by Iran. The two reports seemed to show Tehran was suffering setbacks among key countries that it has tried to turn into bases for proxies.
However, reports in Israel on December 18 appeared to refute the Wall Street Journal article. Iran claimed Irloo had COVID and was being evacuated for health reasons. Khaleej Times in the UAE reported on December 18 that "the [Iran] Foreign Ministry said on its website that Ambassador Hassan Irloo was in need of urgent medical care after being infected for several days, and was en route to Iran." So was it strains with the Houthis or health? Was COVID a cover story? What really happened?
Meanwhile, a further controversy erupted after Iran said regional countries were slow to help the evacuation of the official. Saudi Arabia denied it had slowed the evacuation. "It had facilitated the evacuation on humanitarian grounds, and in recognition of the diplomatic mediation by Oman and Iraq in less than 48 hours of reporting [Irloo's] health condition," the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition said.
According to Al Jazeera in Qatar, "Irloo, 63, was named last year as Iran's ambassador to the areas of the war-torn country controlled by the Houthi rebels. He was flown out of Sanaa on an Iraqi flight after his hosts secured authorization from the Saudi-led coalition, which has enforced an air and sea blockade on rebel-held territory since August 2016."
The story of the flight to Iraq appears to add more details. This was a rare flight and shows how important Irloo was to Iran. It also reveals that Saudi Arabia was flexible in halting its air blockade of Yemen. Nevertheless, pro-Iran social media claimed the delay had cost Irloo his life. They noted his long background, having fought in the Iran-Iraq War and having survived chemical weapons attacks.
The story of him having COVID and the Houthis asking him to leave doesn't seem to add up. If they asked him to leave, the Saudis might have helped facilitate that because they didn't want a high-level official there anyway. But if he had COVID then why would the Houthis also ask him to leave? How can Saudi Arabia be to blame for a slow evacuation if it wasn't the coronavirus?
This led to the third round of stories about Irloo. According to the Resistance Axis Monitor, Irloo was described as an IRGC Quds Force member who had also been appointed as Iran's ambassador to the Houthis. "There are some reports he was injured in a Saudi strike in Yemen." Then Iran's state media IRNA reported that Irloo (sometimes spelled Irlu) was also living under the code name "Commander Shahlai" and was a Quds force member who had a $15 million bounty on his head from the US. "Shahlai played a key role in organizing Iraqi insurgents against coalition forces during the Iraq War."
Adam Rawnsley, a reporter at The Daily Beast, tweeted: "It's public but don't often see people connecting the two: Shahlai (aka Irloo) was also the Quds Force commander who allegedly orchestrated the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in DC. His cousin, Manssor Arbabsiar, is in federal prison for it."
Joel Rayburn, a fellow at the New America Foundation and former US special envoy for Syria, tweeted: "Iranian state media today admitted and then quickly deleted the amazing admission that Iranian Amb to Yemen Irloo is same person as IRGC Commander Shahlai, who smuggled EFPs [explosively formed penetrators] into Iraq, plotted with his American cousin to kill Saudi Amb [Adel al-] Jubeir at Cafe Milano, and fired missiles at Riyadh."
EFPs were used to kill US forces after the 2003 invasion. Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force leader, was known to be responsible for moving EFPs into Iraq. The US killed Soleimani in January 2020.
Back in December 2020, the US had sanctioned Irloo. According to the Treasury's report, Hasan Irloo had "supported IRGC-QF efforts to provide advanced weapons and training to the Houthis. He coordinated with other senior IRGC-QF leaders to support the group's operations throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen. Irloo maintained a relationship with former IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani. He has also provided training to Hezbollah members in Iran."
The differing reports don't add up to a conclusive story about Irloo. Clearly, he was a high-level official in Iran and he was more than a diplomat. As an IRGC Quds Force commander, his appointment was an envoy and it likely exceeded any normal notion of diplomatic capacity.
In this role, he threatened Saudi Arabia. If he was wounded in an airstrike and then the Houthis wanted to send a wounded Irloo back, it is strange that Riyadh would facilitate the transfer.
However, it could be that pressure was brought based on Iranian threats. If Iran held Riyadh responsible for wounding him, the quid pro quo could be that Riyadh enabled his transfer and that this could reduce tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi apparently brokered this flight, and reports say that Iraq has hosted Saudi-Iran talks over the past year.
The reports about Houthi tensions with Iran leading to his departure seem strange, considering he then died days later. If he died of COVID or of a wound from an airstrike, it doesn't stand to reason that the Houthis happened to also want him to leave and that he just coincidentally got wounded.
It is possible the coronavirus story was a cover for some other form of "martyrdom." The fact that Iran media appeared to admit he was a Quds Force commander with a code name and then removed the report shows how Iran believes this is sensitive information.
Riyadh facilitated Irloo's departure despite his role in targeting Saudi Arabia over the years.
If he was in fact primarily a military adviser to the Houthis and then got COVID or died from wounds in battle, it still is extraordinary Riyadh facilitated this considering his role in targeting Saudi Arabia over the years. His previous role fighting Iraq and sending EFPs to Iraq make it interesting that Iraq helped him leave as well.
Iran went to some lengths to show that the man had COVID. Iran published a photo of Irloo in a hospital bed to disabuse rumors. Because everything in the region tends to be seen as conspiracies, one rumor has said Iran's admission that he was also Commander Shahlai was put out to confuse those seeking Shahlai.
Either way, the loss of Irloo is important for Iran. It is a setback both for Iran's diplomatic efforts and the IRGC's efforts in Yemen. It is yet another high-ranking official to die after Soleimani. If it's true that Irloo was also Shahlai, that is a loss for Iran and helps resolve a search for this dangerous Iranian commander.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.