A Houthi plan to send Iran’s envoy in Sanaa back to his home country has sparked a debate among Yemenis who have mostly disputed reports about a possible rift between the militia and the Iranian regime.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the Houthis had sent a request to the Arab coalition, which controls Yemeni airspace, to allow Hassan Erlo to fly back to Iran.
Iran appointed Erlo as ambassador in Houthi-controlled Sanaa in Oct. 2020, a move that sparked outrage in Yemen and prompted the government to call him a “de facto ruler” of Houthi-controlled territories who commanded military operations against Yemeni forces.
Yemeni political and military analysts, politicians and rights activists ruled out the possibility of tension between the Houthis and Iran.
“Al-Houthi is an essential part of Iran's sectarian project to conquer or destroy the region,” Yassen Saeed Makkawi, an adviser to the Yemeni president, tweeted.
For more than a decade, Yemeni governments have accused the Iranian regime of supporting the Houthis with advanced weapons, politically and financially, citing interceptions of weapon shipments bound for the militia, the death of Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi military officers during fighting in Yemen, biased media coverage of Iran-funded media establishments and Erlo’s appointment.
If there was no presence of Iran's military experts on the ground, the government and the Arab coalition would have expelled the Houthis from Sanaa and other areas under their control, experts said.
Col. Yahiya Abu Hatem, a Yemeni military analyst, said the Iranian official might have been infected with COVID-19 or wounded in airstrikes.
He added that, with this move, Iran might try to prove that the Houthis were the sole controller of its decisions in Yemen.
“Al-Houthi is a faction of Iran's Revolutionary Guards outside the borders of Iran. What unites Al-Houthi with Iran is the rebels' dependency and absolute loyalty to Iran. Any talk of a dispute between Houthis and Iran is just nonsense,” Abu Hatem said.
Saleh Al-Baydani, a Yemeni political analyst, argued that the “sick” Iranian official was supposed to be evacuated on a flight arranged by a mediator and was canceled due to the latest airstrikes by coalition planes on Sanaa. “This faltering evacuation is purely due to medical and not political reasons.”
Other Yemenis noted that Iran had fabricated news about rifts to give recognition to the Houthis and to alleviate international pressure on the movement.
Fahed Taleb Al-Sharafi, a Yemeni journalist, said the Revolutionary Guards directly supervised the Houthis. “The story of the Houthi dispute with Erlo is an Iranian ploy with the aim of bringing recognition and easing the increasing international pressure on the Houthis.”
Other Yemenis agreed there were disputes between Iran and the Houthis that had emerged during recent months, after Iranian military plans failed to lead to the Houthi occupation of the central city of Marib.
Five months after Erlo’s arrival in Sanaa, the Houthis announced resuming a major military offensive to seize control of the city.
They suffered thousands of losses and largely failed to achieve their goal, despite making rapid progress in Marib and Al-Bayda provinces.
Faisal Al-Majidi, an undersecretary at the Justice Ministry, said the Iranians were seeking to replace Erlo after failing to capture Marib. “This is nothing more than an Iranian stance after its failure to capture Marib,” he said.
Najeeb Ghallab, an undersecretary at the Information Ministry and a political analyst, told Arab News that less influential figures in the Houthi movement were not happy with the sweeping Iranian influence on it, mainly during the war.
“Those people are seeking a natural relationship with Iran, not Iran’s full control of the movement,” Ghallab said