Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh announced the death of Hassan Irloo, the country's top diplomat to the Yemeni capital. Sanaa is controlled by the Tehran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels.
The ambassador died of COVID-19 according to the spokesman, who described Irloo as a "martyr," as Iranian officials often refer to soldiers who die in combat and selectively for public workers who die while serving in an official capacity.
As a member of the Quds Force — the overseas branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — Irloo did not have a diplomatic background. Irloo was blacklisted by the US government late last year over his membership in the IRGC, which itself is designated as a terror organization.
While the exact circumstances surrounding Irloo's death have yet to be clarified, Khatibzadeh accused "certain countries" of "overdue cooperation" in allowing his return to Iran for treatment. Under an effective Saudi blockade from sea, land and air, the Houthis had urged Saudi officials to facilitate the envoy's departure, which reportedly took place via a flight to Iraq on Sunday. Amwaj Media reported that “direct contact” between Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman facilitated the repatriation of the ambassador.
Ahead of Irloo's return to Tehran, Wall Street Journal, citing a "regional official," reported growing rifts between the Houthis and the Iranian envoy, who had "become a burden" for the rebels. Khatibzadeh has dismissed those reports as "fabrication."
Since 2015, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been waging a protracted war of attrition over who calls the shots in in Yemen, the Middle East's poorest nation, as it grapples with a war-triggered humanitarian crisis. Riyadh accuses Tehran of trying to destabilize the country by arming Shiite rebels, who unseated a sovereign government. The Islamic Republic, on the other hand, denies providing logistical support to the Houthis, but publicly supports their right to fight off what it calls the Saudi aggression.
It was not immediately clear what repercussions the Saudi handling of the Iranian ambassador's transfer out of Yemen could bring for the already tense ties between the two nations, which have no formal diplomatic relations.
Since last year, the two sides have engaged in de-escalation dialogue mediated by regional nations including Iraq and Jordan, but with no tangible outcomes so far, meaning that as the war drags on, so do the talks.
On Monday, just hours before news broke of the ambassador's death, Tehran appeared to be throwing the ball into Riyadh's court, saying progress in the dialogue depends on the "seriousness" of the Saudi side.