The murky life and death of ‘Yemen’s Soleimani’
The death of Iranian military commander Hasan Irlu has provoked as much turmoil and uproar as his appointment as Tehran’s “ambassador” to Sanaa did almost a year ago. Irlu’s mysterious demise has led to considerable speculation in light of his pivotal role in Yemen.
Announcing Irlu’s death last week from coronavirus complications, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Said Khatibzadeh launched a tirade against Saudi Arabia, a habitual practice for Iranian officials. He accused the Kingdom of deliberately obstructing Irlu’s return to Iran to receive treatment. Accusatory comments by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein-Amir Abdollahian were even more direct.
These false accusations prompted the spokesman for the Arab coalition in Yemen, Col. Turki Al-Maliki, to issue a statement rejecting the claims.
Al-Maliki said that less than 48 hours after being notified of Irlu’s deteriorating health, the coalition had shown its willingness to cooperate in evacuating the commander from Yemen due to humanitarian considerations.
He also rejected other accusations against the Kingdom cited by Rajanews, a news website affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which claimed Arab coalition forces bombed the location where Irlu was present in Sanaa.
The report published on the IRGC website claimed that “over the past few days, Saudi fighter jets have combed the area where Irlu was present after reports were leaked of his whereabouts,” but failed to provide any evidence to substantiate this allegation.
According to the report, the Kingdom is responsible for Irlu’s “martyrdom.”
The inflammatory report went on to allege that this is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has been responsible for the death of an Iranian diplomat. It accused the Kingdom of being responsible for the death of former Iranian ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Roknabadi, who, the report falsely claimed, had survived the 2015 Mina stampede tragedy in which 2,262 people died, and was killed later.
Ahmad Naderi, chairman of the education committee in Iran’s Parliament, made an extremely insulting and inflammatory statement against the Kingdom, saying: “The horrendous martyrdom of Iran’s ambassador to Yemen is a stab in the hearts of the resistance figures throughout the region. It’s the second occasion on which a takfiri state that claims to be Muslim has taken out one of our ambassadors. Had it received an appropriate response the first time, there wouldn’t have been a second time. We must consider a serious solution.”
Irlu’s daughter Fatimah also launched a tirade against the Kingdom. “As the death of (Qassem) Soleimani doomed Trump’s rule, the death of my father will doom Bin Salman ibn Abu Sufyan,” (Of course, in this allegation, she shows no respect for Abu Sufyan, revered by all Muslims as one of the Prophet’s companions.)
Zahra Roknabadi, daughter of Iran’s former ambassador to Lebanon, who is believed to be working in Iran’s Iranian Foreign Ministry, also launched an attack on the Kingdom. In a post on Twitter, she said: “Saudis’ killing of ambassadors didn’t begin with Roknabadi and won’t end with Irlu. The alleyways of Kufa are a witness to the pains of (Imam) Hossein’s ambassador. Killing ambassadors is one of the well-established customs of Abu Sufyan’s descendants.”
On the basis of these scurrilous claims by Iranian officials and media, it seems that Irlu was no ordinary diplomat who simply rose through the Foreign Ministry’s ranks to become an ambassador. Nevertheless, a report by Iran’s state ISNA news agency suggested that he had been working in the Foreign Ministry for a long time, and claimed that he was a veteran diplomat in the ministry, as well as an expert on Arabian affairs and issues concerning the Arabian Peninsula.
The news agency also claimed that Irlu had been in charge of Yemeni affairs in the Foreign Ministry. After the start of the war in Yemen in 2015, according to a ISNA report, he had been entrusted with coordinating Iranian humanitarian assistance in Yemen, serving as deputy foreign minister for Yemeni affairs from 2015 to 2020 before being appointed ambassador.
There is no doubt Irlu was a heavyweight Iranian regime representative, which is why Tehran overlooked its customary hostility to the Kingdom, which it regards as its ideological arch-enemy, to request that he be allowed to leave Yemen for medical treatment.
Some comments by Iranian officials suggest that Irlu was a Quds Force commander. Brig. Ali Fadav, deputy commander of the IRGC, said that he met Irlu four decades ago on the front line beyond the country’s borders, while Ismail Qaani, commander of the Quds Force, said that Irlu had dedicated his life to serving the Islamic revolution.
Several news websites close to the IRGC admitted that Irlu was a comrade of the infamous Soleimani on the battlefield and played essential roles outside Yemen. Rajanews reported that the services performed by Irlu for the so-called “Axis of Resistance” went beyond Yemen, and highlighted his key role in the first withdrawal of the US and of what it called the “hypocritical People’s Mujahedeen Organization” from Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Javan newspaper described Irlu as “a revolutionary diplomat who had always been focused on the geography of the Islamic world,” adding that “he knew no boundaries when it comes to helping the people.” The state-run IRNA news agency also spoke of Irlu’s pivotal role in Iraq in the post-Saddam era.
The regime’s military and the battlefield are the ultimate deciders of Iranian policies in the region, and the Quds Force is responsible for appointing ambassadors to regional countries, especially those in the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” while the Foreign Ministry’s role is essentially to provide diplomatic cover for IRGC generals. This being the case, it cannot be ruled out that “Ambassador Irlu” was, first and foremost, a Quds Force commander rather than an ordinary diplomat.
Several news websites close to the IRGC admitted that Irlu was a comrade of the infamous Soleimani on the battlefield and played essential roles outside Yemen.
The “martyrdom” of the man known as Yemen’s Soleimani has reignited debate among the Iranian regime’s supporters. Some have paid tribute to Irlu and likened him to Abdul Reza Shahlai, commander of the Quds Force’s Yemen division, pointing out that the US offered a $15 million reward for information about either of the two Iranian officials. It is worth noting that no photograph of Shahlai was provided, though his likeness on the US ‘“wanted” posters bears some resemblance to Irlu. One of the regime’s loyalists said: “When Shahlai suddenly became Iran’s ambassador to Yemen and did huge services for the resilient Yemeni people, I expected that he would be martyred — not because of coronavirus.”
Others went further, dismissing reports of Irlu’s death and accusing those who “promote the rumor” of using it to gain more followers on social media. Some have gone so far as to assert that Irlu is in good health and performing his duties outside the country as usual.
The rapid deletion of part of the IRNA website article on Irlu’s death fueled speculation that Irlu and Shahlai are actually one and the same person; originally the article noted that Irlu assumed the name of Shahlai among his “resistance” commanders.
Although it is possible that Irlu was Shahlai, it also cannot be discounted that this may be a false rumor promoted by the Iranian regime, and that the IRNA could have deliberately leaked, then retracted, the claim as a means of indirectly messaging Washington in an effort to encourage the Pentagon to call off its pursuit of Shahlai now that Irlu is dead.
This would allow the real Shahlai (if such a man exists) to continue his missions without fear of being targeted — as he was in a failed US drone strike in January 2020, on the same night that Soleimani was killed. For Iran’s regime, assigning “martyrdom” does not necessarily suggest that the deceased has been martyred in the traditional sense of the term.
There also remains a possibility that Irlu was killed as a result of an argument with Iran’s erstwhile Houthi allies, with whom tensions have reportedly been growing. If this is true, it would be an indication of the deepening fractures between the Tehran regime and the militias after the latter’s failure to seize control of Marib governorate and the Arab coalition’s success in striking a deadly blow to the Houthis in the heart of Sanaa. It is likely that we will soon see the consequences of the absence of Irlu from the conflict zone in Yemen.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is head of Rasanah, the International Institute for Iranian Studies. Twitter: @mohalsulami