In the fall of 2020, the U.S. Government set a $15 million reward for information leading to the capture of Abdul Raza Shala’i, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) in Yemen. General Shala’i was placed on the U.S. sanctions list at the time, but no one even knew if any such person existed. In early January 2020, the United States confirmed that at the same time as the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, an assassination attempt was also carried out on Shala’i in Yemen, but he survived.
Now, the supposed Coronavirus death of Hassan Irlou, Iran’s Ambassador to the Houthi forces in Sanaa, Yemen, has possibly revealed one of Iran’s deepest secrets in Yemen. It has left the Iranian press confused and embarrassed by the identity confusion and circumstances of Irlou’s death.
IRNA, an official Iranian News Agency, profiled Hassan Irlou on December 22, 2021. It noted that the diplomat was also known as Brig. Gen. Abdul Reza Shahla’i. The article emphasized that Hassan Irlou was “a comrade in arms of Qasem Soleimani,” played a key role as “one of the commanders of the resistance,” and carried the nickname “Sardar [General] Shahla’i.” Sources close to Iran’s military institutions, such as IRGC’s Tehran’s Ammar cyber base (monitoring “counter-revolutionary” “covert” activities), noted that Hassan Irlou was one of the closest figures to Qasem Soleimani and one of the most influential figures in recent years in the resistance scene in Yemen.
Hassan Irlou served alongside Qasem Soleimani in Iraq. He was disabled in the Iran-Iraq War after being exposed to chemical weapons fired by Saddam Hussein against Iranian forces. Irlou’s two brothers were killed on the front lines of that war. His younger brother was only 15 at the time of his death, and the brothers’ bodies have not been found.
Irlou infiltrated into Yemen last year, possibly disguised as a repatriated wounded Houthi soldier, according to Middle East analyst Yoni Ben Menachem.3 Once in Yemen, Irlou was declared Iran’s ambassador to the parts of Yemen controlled by Houthi rebels. He played a leading role in formulating the Houthis’ political and military strategy in their war against Saudi Arabia. Iran has a familiar pattern of using al Qods’ activity under diplomatic guise in various arenas.
Newsweek revealed on January 13, 2021, “Iran Positions ‘Suicide Drones’ in Yemen,” a development possibly tied to the posting of the Iranian expert Gen. Hassan Irlou as “ambassador” to the Houthis. “The unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are weapons assessed to have an effective range of 2,000 to 2,200 kilometers, or roughly 1,240 to 1,370 miles, drawing a massive radius across the region in which a potential attack is suspected to be in the works.”4
Shortly after his death, Iranian social media and other sources reported the fact that Irlou was Shahla’i, the commander and coordinator of Iran’s operations in Yemen. IRNA deleted a sentence that Irlou was a general wanted by the United States. Several other Iranian news sites quoted the same IRNA article and belatedly deleted the original IRNA report after several hours.
Meanwhile, the pro-Saudi Al Arabiya TV channel aired Saudi-led Coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki presenting Hizbullah instructors subordinated to Nasrallah training the Houthis how to operate drones. Al-Maliki described Irlou’s role as the one “who planned and led the recent military offensive in Marib and overall activities in Yemen”
The report circulated in the Arab media and presented “evidence of extensive and deep involvement” of Hizbullah (and leader Hassan Nasrallah himself) and the IRGC in the Houthi ballistic missiles and drone program and the launching (so far) of “430 ballistic missiles and 851 drones at the Kingdom.”
Al-Maliki reviewed the “evidence” that Hizbullah and IRGC serve as command and control the Houthis and dictate economic, military, and political action plans. He also demonstrated how Sana’a International Airport was turned into workshops to manufacture suicide drones and ballistic missile tests. The evidence included plans, charts, and aerial footage of drone manufacturing.6
After Irlou’s death, various rumors circulated on social media and in Iranian media that he had been wounded in a Saudi airstrike in Sanaa and died of his wounds after being transferred to Iran. Meanwhile, the Iranian-affiliated RajaNews website reported that Saudi warplanes bombed an area of Yemen’s city of Sanaa earlier, revealing the ambassador’s whereabouts, but that report was also removed.7 The Islamic World News claimed there is no connection between Hassan Irlou and Abdul Raza Shahla’i, and that the latter is “alive and kicking” and continuing his missions.8 According to the State Department, the $15 million reward for Shahla’i “still stands” despite Irlou’s demise.9
Video footage showed that Irlou’s funeral took none of the precautionary measures required at funerals of corona patients, and Saudi reports say Irlou had not shown corona symptoms recently.10 Photos of Irlou in hospital showed a glaring absence of Corona protective gear by the attendants and the patient.11
On October 22, 2012, Iran’s leader Khamenei issued a mourning notice for Irlou, stressing that he was a senior figure who sacrificed himself to promote Islam and to support the resistance forces. Esmail Ghaani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, issued a statement stressing that Irlou had sought to die as a martyr, and when he died, he had realized his dream.
Dozens of IRGC senior officers attended Irlou’s funeral on December 22 at the Imam-Zadeh Taher Cemetery near Tehran. The funeral was also attended by the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who is very close to the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander and accompanied him in some of his missions. He was also close to Qasem Soleimani.12
At some point, the Iranian regime claimed that its ambassador to Yemen, 63 years old, had contracted coronavirus and had been transferred to Tehran by an Iraqi military plane after receiving special permission from the Saudi government. In exchange for its flight clearance, Saudi Arabia requested the release of several Saudis detained by the Houthis.
Irlou’s death and reports of a delay in his medical treatment prompted a wide wave of anti-Saudi comments from conservative Iranian media outlets. The Mehr news agency reported that the kingdom had willfully delayed Irlou’s arrival in Iran, which was the reason for his death. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, apparently addressing Saudi Arabia, said Tehran would “never forget” that some countries failed to immediately help rescue the ambassador’s life. Irlou’s’ daughter Fatma tweeted: “Just as Qasem Soleimani’s fall caused disaster for (former President13) Trump, so will the death of my father – with the help of Allah – bring a disaster to (Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed) bin Salman.”14
A spokesman for the Saudi-led Coalition denied the Iranian claims that it delayed providing medical treatment to Hassan Irlou. The Saudi spokesman said Riyadh had responded positively to Oman’s and Iraq’s intercession and allowed for humanitarian reasons for Irlou to leave Yemen in less than 48 hours. However, on Saudi social media and among Iran’s opponents in the region, the death of Irlou/Shala’i was received with happiness, and his photos were circulated with pictures mocking Soleimani.15
Meanwhile, in the shadow of the current dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Irlou’s death, the Iranian foreign minister admitted to his Iraqi counterpart during a meeting (December 23) in Tehran, that Iran is working to establish another round of talks in Baghdad between Tehran and Riyadh. It should be emphasized that since 2016, Iran and Saudi Arabia have not maintained formal diplomatic relations after an attack on the Saudi consulate in Mashdad. So far, Iran and Saudi Arabia have held four rounds of talks since the beginning of the year, brokered by Iraq in Baghdad. One of the hot topics at the meetings is the crisis in Yemen.
The death of the Iranian ambassador to Yemen and the continued firing of Houthi missiles at Saudi Arabia continue to undermine improved relations between the two countries. On December 25, the Houthis launched three ballistic missiles at the Jizan region, killing two Saudi civilians in the city of Samtah. The Houthis’ spokesman claimed the missiles were fired at “sensitive sites.”16
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1 The U.S. Department of State’s Counter-Terrorism Rewards Program, https://rewardsforjustice.net/english/about-rfj/program-overview.html
3 Yoni Ben Menachem, https://jcpa.org/irans-man-in-yemen-is-a-revolutionary-guard-officer/
4 Ben Menachem, Ibid
5 Satellite photograph. https://www.newsweek.com/iran-suicide-drones-yemen-red-sea-tensions-1561395