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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Iran’s Man in Yemen Is a Revolutionary Guard Officer

Filed under: Iran, Yemen

Iran’s Man in Yemen Is a Revolutionary Guard Officer
Iranian “Ambassador” Hassan Irlu eulogizes his former colleague, Gen. Qassem Soleimani at a memorial service in the Houthi “capital” of Sanaa on January 2, 2021. “The Resistance Front is moving forward with all the efforts. America must realize that the era of its presence in the region is over, and the nightmare of ‘Martyr Soleimani’ will pursue the enemies until they are eliminated once and for all.” (Iranian press)1
  • Iran has posted a senior al-Quds Force officer as an “ambassador” to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Gen. Hassan Irlu specializes in manufacturing guided missiles and drones.
  • The Iranian move aims to increase its control over northern Yemen and better prepare for more terrorist activity and its extension into the Middle East.

The American and Israeli alerts against the possibility of retaliatory attacks by Iran and its offshoots over the assassination of Qassem Suleimani continue, and the Iranians are pleased with President Trump’s imbroglio after the attack on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. One cannot rule out the possibility that the Iranians believe Trump is weakened and his power is limited, and the possibility of Iran trying to attack American and Israeli targets exists.

Israel, too, is continuing its preparations in its north and south for such a possibility. An Israeli submarine was dispatched through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea to guard against a possible attack by Houthi rebels in Yemen on the naval base in Eilat. The IDF deployed the anti-rocket Iron Dome system in the Eilat area for fear of the Houthis attacking with precision missiles and drones.

According to U.S. sources, Saudi Arabia and Israel increased pressure on the outgoing Trump administration to declare the Ansarallah organization of Houthi rebels in Yemen a terrorist organization and impose sanctions on it before Trump’s January 20, 2021, departure. The Houthi rebels are monitoring Israeli activity through their intelligence service, and they now claim that Israel is secretly assisting Saudi Arabia in the war against them in Yemen. They have announced that they have a “bank of targets” in Israel that they can hit.

The Houthi threat is not just firing long-range missiles and precision drones (with Iranian assistance in the whole weapons production process) at Israel. According to Israeli intelligence estimates, the Houthis may attempt to strike Israeli ships sailing in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandab Strait region using naval mines or explosive boats. They have already successfully unleashed these weapons on Saudi targets. In the course of 2020, the international naval coalition destroyed 176 Iranian naval mines deployed in the waters of the Red Sea.2

Newsweek revealed on January 13, 2021, “Iran Positions ‘Suicide Drones’ in Yemen,” a development certainly tied to the posting of the Iranian drone expert Gen. Hassan Irlu as “ambassador” to the Houthis. According to Newsweek’s unnamed expert, “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.”

Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicle deployed to Yemen's northern Al-Jawf province
An image shared with Newsweek by an expert who follows Iranian activity in the region purports to show a Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicle deployed to Yemen’s northern Al-Jawf province, an area under the control the Ansarallah, or Houthi, movement, on December 25, 2020.

Iran Prepares to Escalate Attacks from Yemen

In October 2020, a senior officer of the Quds Force in the Revolutionary Guards, Hassan Irlu was appointed as Iran’s “ambassador” to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. He arrived in Sanaa, a move that has military and political significance, a kind of Iranian recognition of the “state” of Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Hassan Irlu
Irlu was received with full honors by the Houthi leadership when he presented his “credentials.” (Screenshot, YouTube)3

This is a new phase in Iranian activity after the assassination of Qassem Suleimani: Iran stepping up control of northern Yemen with the close supervision of its new “ambassador,” who specializes in manufacturing and launching ballistic and anti-aircraft missiles. His presence and activities in northern Yemen pose a danger to Saudi Arabia and Israel, which resulted in the Trump administration announcing in December 2020 the inclusion of General Hassan Irlu on the list of international terrorist operatives.

The United States Treasury issued a comprehensive profile of Irlu’s activities:

For years, Irlu 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. Irlu maintained a relationship with former IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani. He has also provided training to Hizbullah members in Iran.4

Secretary Pompeo Tweet

At the same time, the legal and recognized Republic of Yemen’s military court launched a trial against Hassan Irlu and accused him of espionage, sabotage, and participation in hostile acts against Yemeni citizens and the Yemeni national army. The prosecutors of the Yemeni army submitted evidence to the court about Houthi rebel contacts with Iran in connection with Hassan Irlu’s activities. Irlu has no diplomatic background, and it is even unclear whether this is his real name. A controversy in the Arab world has emerged since it is unclear how he managed to reach Sanaa despite the Saudi blockade of Yemen.

The Ababil Net website reported on October 19, 2020, that he arrived in Sanaa on a UN plane that brought wounded and Yemeni captives to Sanaa using forged documents and posing as one of the wounded. Twelve other Iranian officers specializing in precision missile and drone production arrived with him.

Hassan Irlu was one of Qassem Suleimani closest associates. His two brothers were killed during the Iran-Iraq War. He was also close to Brig. Gen. Abdul Reza Shahlai, who was involved in supporting and training Houthi rebels in Yemen and was suspected of being killed in a Saudi bombing of Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Irlu and Suleimani

According to reports, Hassan Irlu had trained Hizbullah operatives at the Bahonar military camp north of Tehran. Yemen’s new Iranian “ambassador” is holding discussions with Houthi rebel leaders and even participating in their official ceremonies. On January 2, 2021 he attended a large ceremony in Sanaa in memory of Qassem Suleimani, and in a speech, he declared, “Yemen is the beating heart of the resistance front and the upper hand of the axis of opponents and hope of the world. Yemen has stubbornly failed and withstands the enemies and sieges the plans of imperialism and Zionism.”

Irlu also visited the grave of Houthi leader Saleh Ali al-Sammad, the head of the Supreme Political Council,” who was killed in April 2018 in a bombing in Yemen by planes of the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

Arab commentators suggest that Iranian General Hassan Irlu was behind the terrorist attack at Aden airport two weeks ago when three guided missiles hit, just as a plane carrying new government ministers landed. The terrorist attack killed 26 people and wounded about 100. Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed said he had intelligence that Iranian experts carried out the attack.

Placing an Iranian “ambassador” with Houthi rebels in Yemen is a violation of international treaties. This Iranian move shows Iran’s attempt to recover from Qassem Suleimani’s assassination and increase its terrorist activities in the Middle East. Iran places great importance on the battle lines in Yemen and wants to directly monitor battle management and political negotiations conducted by the UN envoy to Yemen. The Iranian military also seeks to monitor the secret contacts of the Yemeni government with Saudi Arabia.

General Hassan Irlu has been named the Iranian governor of Sanaa and is tasked by Iran to plan and carry out attacks on Israeli targets, if necessary.

Israel is conducting a very cautious policy with the Houthis in Yemen. Prime Minister Netanyahu revealed in November 2019, that Iran had begun equipping the Houthis with precision missiles. Israel has excellent intelligence information about what is happening in Yemen and the Houthi rebels’ ties to Iran’s “Revolutionary Guards.”

Irlu has become a key figure in the operation of Houthi rebels under Iran’s directions, but Israel is currently not initiating any actions against the Houthis in Yemen. Israel does not seek to open a new front even though all indications are that Iran plans to turn northern Yemen into a base for attacks on Israeli targets.

According to statements by President-elect Joe Biden during the election campaign, he opposes the war in Yemen and wants its immediate cessation. Israel is watching developments and judging whether Iran will act to quiet the Yemeni front or escalate its activities in order to put pressure on the new administration.

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