Tehran was quick to act following the death last month of Hassan Erlou, the Iranian ambassador to Yemen who played a central role in reorganising the command of the Ansarullah, the armed branch of the Houthi rebel movement. To replace him the Al Quds Force of the Pasdaran, headed by Ismail Qaani, appointed Abdul Reza Shahlai, a military chief already known as the Qasem Soleimani of Yemen for the grip he held on Houthis’s security forces under Erlou.
Shalai, who will pursue the strategic battle for Marib, commands a force of more than 1000 Iranian soldiers and the same number of Hezbollah troops, most of whom belong to the Al Ridwan Division, which was previously deployed in Syria. The Lebanese Shi’ite fihters are led by the head of Hezbollah’s Unit 3800, Khalil Youssef Harb, who is in charge of ensuring supplies of arms and ammunition reach the Ansarullah. Shahlai, also known as Hajj Youssef and Hajj Yasser, is already in Washington’s sights. Last month, the US goverment offered a $15m reward for information about his “financial networks and associates”. However he keeps a very low profile, communicating from his rear base in Sa’ada only with Houthi officials Abdul Malik Al Houthi and his brother Yehid Al Houthi.
Ambassador’s death remains mysterious
The reorganisation was speedily arranged, but the death of the ambassador shocked Tehran. The diplomat had spearheaded the Iranian presence in Yemen since October 2020 . Although it was initially claimed he had died of Covid-19, it is thought highly probable that he was assassinated. On 10 December, a Saudi Arabian strike targeted the Al Dailami base next to Sa’ana Airport, where Erlou and his command had been based since September 2021 and there is speculation that he was injured in the attack and died during his evacuation on board an Iraqi plane. His elder daughter, calling for his death to be avenged, claimed he “fell like General Soleimani”, who was killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020 .