Iran’s top diplomat to Houthi-controlled Yemen has died of Covid-19 after a hastily arranged flight out of the country over the weekend, Iranian officials said.
Hassan Irloo, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was smuggled into Yemen and named Iran’s ambassador in November 2020 to parts of the country controlled by the Houthis. His installment was condemned in Washington and Riyadh and seen as a sign of an emboldened Iran, as the Houthis made gains in Yemen’s civil war.
As recently as Sunday, Iranian officials said Mr. Irloo’s medical condition was stable. In announcing his death Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman blamed unnamed countries for delaying Mr. Irloo’s transportation home.
“He was executing his mission and because of late cooperation of some countries returned to the country in unwell conditions,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman with Iran’s foreign ministry.
The Houthis sought permission from Saudi Arabia, which maintains a blockade of the skies over Yemen’s capital Sana’a, for Mr. Irloo to go home last week, Middle Eastern and Western officials said. The Saudis wouldn’t allow an Iranian plane to take him and insisted on the release of some hostages being held by the Houthis, the officials said. An Iraqi military plane eventually flew Mr. Irloo out of Yemen, the officials said.
The Saudis viewed the request for Mr. Irloo to leave as a sign of a break between the Houthis and Tehran. The Houthis had insisted they were only seeking help in getting him medical treatment in Iran. Iranian officials also denied there were any motives besides his health.
An attack on Saudi Aramco oil facilities led to an escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Iran. While Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia pointed to evidence Iran was involved. (Video from 9/20/19)
Mr. Irloo was Iran’s point man in aiding the Houthis with the war, in which Saudi Arabia has been ensnared since launching a military campaign there in 2014. Since the takeover of Sana’a by the Houthis in 2014, Iran has stepped up its support and received a Houthi ambassador to Tehran in 2019.
Riyadh and Washington have accused Iran of military aid to the rebel group including ballistic missiles and drones. But Iran says the nature of the support is “political.”
Mr. Irloo’s death comes amid a diplomatic deadlock in efforts to end the seven-year-old war. The U.S. and the United Nations have hit repeated roadblocks when trying to broker a cease-fire, while Houthi fighters have gained on the battlefield.