ADEN — The recent death of Hassan Eyrlou, Iran’s ambassador to the Houthis, has shed fresh light on the group’s internal leadership disagreements and on growing friction between the Houthis and Iran, political analysts said.

Eyrlou died of COVID-19 on December 21, after being airlifted out of Sanaa, where he had been directing the Houthis’ military operations since October 2020.

A number of Houthi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press at the time that Eyrlou’s illness had provided the group with an “opportunity to demand his departure”.

They said the Houthis had complained to the Iranian leadership about Eyrlou’s failure to co-ordinate strategies with them in his meetings with tribal and political leaders.

IRGC Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani (L) attends Hassan Eyrlou’s December funeral in Tehran along with Vice President Mohammad Mokhber (R). [Tasnim News]

Many Houthis regarded Eyrlou, an Iranian, as an outsider, analysts told Al-Mashareq. And in their view, he was exerting an outsized influence in Yemen.

Before Eyrlou’s death, regional officials told the Wall Street Journal that his influence in Yemen had “bolstered a negative perception” in Yemen that the Houthis answer to Tehran.

“Eyrlou has become a burden for them,” one regional official told the newspaper. “He’s a political problem.”

Fueling internal divisions

Houthi officials also assured Riyadh they would not replace Eyrlou with a new Iranian diplomat — though within days of his death, Iran was announcing its intention to send a new ambassador in his place.

Analysts told Al-Mashareq that Eyrlou’s unilateral management style, especially regarding the direction of military operations in Houthi-controlled areas — of which he served as the de facto governor — had caused internal rifts.

It also created a fissure between the Houthis and their longtime backer, the Islamic Republic, with some Houthis expressing resentment over the extent and nature of Iran’s attempt to exert control over the conflict in Yemen.

Political analyst Adel al-Shujaa said Eyrlou did not cause a rift within the Houthis but rather brought the existing divisions to the surface and exacerbated them.

Internal disagreements existed before Eyrlou came to Yemen, he said.

When he came to Yemen, he tried to unite everyone under the leadership of Abdul-Malik al-Houthi but ran into strong opposition among those who regard al-Houthi as an authority in the group but not the sole authority, al-Shujaa said.

IRGC’s representative in Yemen

As the de facto ruler of Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, Eyrlou was crafting military plans with the assistance of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) elements under his command, political analyst Mahmoud al-Taher said.

“Eyrlou was the representative of the IRGC in Yemen,” Abaad Centre for Studies and Research in Yemen director Abdul Salam Mohammed said.

“If it weren’t for his presence, the drones, missiles and modern weapons would not have been sent to Yemen,” Mohammed said.

Iranian weapons have exacerbated and extended Yemen’s war, which has dragged on for more than seven years, to the detriment of the Yemeni people.

Mohammed noted that Eyrlou had forced out some Houthi commanders who had not been trained in Iran and excluded others from positions of power, fueling resentment inside the group.

Analysts said that this heavy handedness had provoked anger among some of the Houthis, who increasingly perceived that their own cause was being undermined as the Iranians bent it further towards their own agenda.

Eyrlou’s death “is a major blow to Iran”, Mohammed said.

But it is also a blow to the Houthis, he added, especially amid the difficult circumstances they are now facing — under fire from the Arab coalition and having trouble attracting new recruits.