Until three weeks ago, Hassan Irloo was a mysterious figure – associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Expeditionary Force – who despite frequently being mentioned in the news was never shown in the media. There was even doubt as to whether “Hassan Irloo” was real or a pseudonym. But three weeks ago, on October 18, he came into focus when he was appointed as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ambassador to the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen. A ceremony was even held for his appointment – with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself attending.
The announcement of Irloo’s departure for Sanaa, the Houthi seat and ancient Yemeni capital, drew a sharp reaction from the US State Department.
”The Iranian regime smuggled Hassan Irloo, a member of the Revolutionary Guards related to the Lebanese Hezbollah, into Yemen," State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus tweeted.
But there was little media coverage until a Twitter account was launched in Irloo’s name which shared photos and videos of him. Irloo has also received a warm reception in Sanaa.
Pictures of this impressive reception were published by Houthi-affiliated media on November 5. According to reports, a military parade was held to welcome Irloo. He then met with Mehdi Al-Mashat, chairman of the Yemeni Supreme Political Council.
Ten days ago Irloo presented his credentials to Hisham Sharaf, the Houthi foreign minister, but according to photographs released from the meeting it was a more ordinary affair than the military parade.
But who is Hassan Irloo, really?
Little is known about Hassan Irloo's personal life. Iranian media says he was born in 1959 in the city of Rey in Tehran province.
In the last three weeks, media outlets close to the Revolutionary Guards described him as a "veteran diplomat" and as head of the Yemeni desk at the Foreign Minister. But all evidence suggests that he is connected with the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards – which is responsible for expeditionary activities in the region.
Even a blurry photo, which for years was the only image of him, was actually a photo of Ghasem Soleimani at Irloo's mother's funeral.
Some media outlets have described him as an "anti-aircraft weapons expert" and a training officer for Lebanese Hezbollah forces.
In addition, countries such as Iraq and Yemen have long been considered as under the authority of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, and the "ambassadors" sent to those countries are also commanders in the Quds Force.
This is a long-standing issue and even the late former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in an interview published in the book “A Narrative of the Life and Times of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,” implicitly criticized the involvement of the Quds Force in foreign affairs and said such interventions were a “problem” that has deprived Iranian diplomacy of "exercising its responsibility in the most sensitive areas.”
Yemen, the Quds Force and Abdul Reza Shahlaei
Yemen, along with Syria and Iraq, is one of the most important countries in Iran’s foreign policy. The country has in recent years used its direct forces and proxies to strengthen its foothold in Yemen in an effort to counter and defeat its rival Saudi Arabia.
Evidence shows that Iran’s Foreign Ministry has almost no role in policymaking with respect to Yemen as well as Iraq. The Quds Force has appointed two commanders to oversee policy for these countries: Iraj Masjedi for Iraq and Abdul Reza Shahlaei for Yemen.
Iraj Masjedi, Iran's ambassador to Iraq, is more or less a known quantity. But Abdolreza Shahlaei is perhaps the most mysterious commander in the Revolutionary Guards.
There is no photo, personal information or trace of this person, but he has been mentioned for many years as the Quds Force lead in Yemeni affairs.
Even last year, when the US government, in an unprecedented move, set a $15 million reward for information related about Shahlaei's activities, it published a sketch of his face instead of a photo.
Nor is any information available on whether Shahlaei is still alive. Some media outlets, including Reuters, quoted sources as saying that on the same day that Ghasem Soleimani was killed in the US operation, a secret drone operation was carried out to kill Shahlaei in Yemen but that he survived.
Hassan Irloo's relationship with the mysterious Shahlaei is also unclear. Is Irloo now the top Iranian authority in Yemen or does he report to Shahlaei or someone like him?
A Houthi minister, meanwhile, was killed during Irloo’s first few days in Sanaa. Hassan Zaid, who served as Minister of Youth and Sports, was killed by unknown individuals on October 27. A few Saudi-affiliated media outlets reported that the assassination was "ordered" by Hassan Irloo. But there is no evidence to support this claim and others have said that it was an internal Houthi feud.
The Yemeni civil war began in 2015, and while the international community continues to recognize the government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was defeated and retreated to the city of Aden, as the official government, Iran recognizes the Houthi government in Sanaa.
During the last five years, the United States and other the countries of the Persian Gulf region have repeatedly announced the seizure of Iranian weapons allegedly destined for the Houthis. The allegation was confirmed in at least once report by UN experts.