Insights into the Port of Yanbu incident, with Jason Brodsky

Jason Brodsky, Challenges and Opportunities for Peace in Yemen,

 April 28, 2021

Image above Yanbu Beach, “File:Yanbu Beach 1.jpg” by Abdullah Imran (Pakistan) is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

I’d like to divide my remarks today into three parts: the first is Tehran’s intent to use Iraq as a model for organizing its meddling in Yemen. The second is how the Houthis have used the removal of the U.S. terrorism sanctions to double down on the consolidation of its gains on the ground in Yemen as well as in its attacks on Saudi Arabia. The third concerns the impact of the nuclear talks on the Yemen file and the intrigue surrounding the ongoing talks on Yemen

In the last administration, the United States sanctioned Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi, and Iran’s Ambassador to Yemen as specially designated global terrorists. For over a decade, Tehran has installed members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in this ambassadorship. Masjedi and his immediate predecessors, Hassan Danaeifar and Hassan Kazemi Qomi, were IRGC-Quds Force officers before they arrived at the helm of the Iranian embassy in Iraq. 

According to some accounts, before becoming ambassador, Masjedi was Soleimani’s advisor, managed the Iraq file for the Quds Force, and was earlier chief of staff of the IRGC’s Ramadan Headquarters. Before his ambassadorial tenure, Danaeifar was director of the Headquarters for Iran-Iraq Economic Relations, which reported to Iran’s president. Kazemi-Qomi was head consul for the Islamic Republic in Herat, Afghanistan and chargé d’affaires in Baghdad. 

In fact, the current commander of the IRGC-Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, used to travel with delegations and identified himself as the deputy ambassador to Afghanistan while he served as Soleimani’s second-in-command. The common denominator here is the insertion of IRGC-Quds Force operatives in Iran’s diplomatic postings.

Join the conversation with other speeches and comments regarding unique issues of the Yemen crisis. 

 

While some observers argue the sanctions are duplicative, the U.S. counterterrorism sanctions against Masjedi under Executive Order 13224 are unprecedented. It was the first time since 2003 that Washington had sanctioned an Iranian ambassador to Baghdad. In doing so, it is seeking to expose how the regime exploits diplomatic posts for IRGC-Quds Force activity. In fact, Tehran continues to use Iraq as a model for other postings—and the sanctioning of Hassan Eyrlou is an example of that paradigm. 

Iran’s government recently named a new ambassador to Yemen, Hassan Eyrlou. This was the first time since 2015 that Iran had sent an ambassador to Sanaa. Eyrlou’s predecessor Hossein Niknam left in 2015 after a bomb exploded outside his residence in late 2014. The official biographies of Eyrlou and Niknam are similar. 

Eyrlou is described as a veteran Iranian diplomat, who previously headed the Yemen desk in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as a special aide to Iran’s foreign minister. Before Niknam was ambassador, he served as chargé d’affaires at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad.

But recent evidence has emerged that Eyrlou may be an IRGC-Quds Force officer himself, with a similar background to Masjedi. Iranian media reports feature his resume, which curiously only dates back to 2014. A report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel, however, may shed more light. 

It documented the interrogation of a Hezbollah operative who was captured during the Second Lebanon War. He revealed that an Iranian named “Hassan Irlu” provided anti-aircraft training to him at an IRGC training camp near Karaj in 1999. Yemen’s government has also written to the U.N. Security Council, alleging that Eyrlou is indeed an IRGC-Quds Force operative who was “closely involved with its late commander Qassem Soleimani.” There are even photographs of Soleimani appearing at a memorial ceremony for Eyrlou’s family. The U.S. State Department also appeared to confirm Eyrlou’s IRGC links in a tweet. A former information minister for the Houthis claims that Eyrlou was also responsible for financial allowances for the militia before he became an ambassador. 

This is similar to Masjedi’s skill sets, as both men have been involved in the financing and training of IRGC-Quds Force-linked militias. If these reports of Eyrlou being an IRGC-Quds Force officer are accurate, this is indicative of the guardsmen’s continued practice of embedding its officers in diplomatic assignments in sensitive theaters. U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking said Eyrlou’s “continued presence in Sanaa casts doubt upon the Houthi assertion that they are not a proxy of Iran.” Indeed, U.S. officials have noted that Eyrlou’s arrival has brought a new level of battlefield sophistication to the Houthis.

Ever since the U.S. removed the terror designation of the Houthis and its halt of offensive aid to Saudi Arabia, there has been an uptick in launches of drones and ballistic missiles targeting Saudi Arabia. This is not to say all of this activity wasn’t happening beforehand. It was. But the Houthis appear to have interpreted that decision as a license to double down in the conflict. U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking said last week the Houthis have fired more than 150 UAVs into Saudi territory since the year started. This doesn’t include the ballistic missiles they have launched. Consider that U.S. officials have found that in February 2021, last month, the Houthis launched more drone and missile strikes than in any other month during the conflict. That’s not to mention the renewal of the offensive on Marib.

The United States has repeatedly issued statements condemning the Houthis’ behavior, has issued sanctions under a separate non-terrorism authority, the Saudis have proposed a ceasefire agreement, but the Houthis and its patron Iran have shown no willingness on the ground to suspending the fight. The Houthi leadership remains divided.

The clock for finding a settlement to the war in Yemen has also coincided with the talks over the revival of the nuclear deal. But one of the JCPOA’s key flaws was Iran’s use of sanctions relief to fund its malign activities in the region—including in Yemen. U.S. negotiators may be trying to launch talks on Yemen to show they remain committed to finding a way to check Iran’s non-nuclear conduct, but there is a tough road ahead given Houthi intransigence.

There appear to be a few different conversations happening on Yemen—U.S. and Houthis have launched direct discussions, according to media reports. There are also the Saudi-Iranian talks at the SNSC level which is important given the likely participation of Ali Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab who has a long history with the Kingdom and has experience serving in Iran’s armed, deep, and elected states. But Iraq has tried to play this mediating role before and it hasn’t worked. 

Also, even while these talks are happening, drones and missiles have been repeatedly lobbed into Saudi Arabia. That is not to mention reports that CIA Director Bill Burns has met with Shamkhani recently in Iraq.

All of this is to say that the synchronization of progress on the nuclear file and progress on the Yemen file is important to watch. 

Reuters cited a regional official recently as saying the Iranian side promised to use Tehran’s influence to halt Houthi attacks on KSA and in return asked that Riyadh support the JCPOA talks. But with an incident like today at the Port of Yanbu, shows the difficulty of achieving that balance.