Iran’s top diplomat in Yemen flew out of the country on Saturday in an agreement between Houthi militants controlling the capital and Saudi Arabia, according to regional officials.
Hassan Irloo, who was smuggled into Yemen last year and named Iran’s ambassador to parts of the country controlled by the Houthis, left on an Iraqi military plane sent to pick him up, according to Saudi, Iranian and Houthi officials.
In recent days, Houthi leaders had asked Saudi Arabia to let Mr. Irloo immediately fly back to Iran. Saudi Arabia has been ensnared in Yemen since launching a military campaign in 2014 to try to force the Houthis out of power and maintains a sweeping air blockade of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.
The kingdom cast Mr. Irloo’s departure as a sign of friction between the Houthis and Tehran.
Iranian officials said their diplomat was leaving Yemen to get urgent medical treatment after contracting Covid-19.
Mr. Irloo, a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has played a key diplomatic and military role in Yemen, where he worked with Houthi forces on their political and battlefield strategies, according to regional officials.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman with Iran’s foreign ministry, and Mohamed Abdelsalam, a Houthi spokesman, both dismissed Saudi speculation that the diplomat’s departure was the result of friction between Tehran and the Yemeni forces.
The Saudis said Mr. Irloo showed no signs he was seriously ill from Covid-19. Instead, Saudi officials said, Mr. Irloo’s influence in Yemen bolstered a negative perception in the country that the militant force answers to Tehran.
After seven years of civil war, the Houthis remain in control of Sana’a and govern much of the country’s north.
In return for allowing Mr. Irloo to leave Yemen, Riyadh had asked the Houthis to release a number of Saudis held by the militant group, according to regional officials. It wasn’t immediately clear on Saturday if the Houthis had agreed to release any Saudis.
Since the Houthis seized control of Sana’a in 2014, Iran has steadily increased its support for the militant force.
Saudi Arabia‘s politically unpopular war has damaged its relations with the U.S., where President Biden last year cut off much of the U.S. military aid used by Saudi Arabia to battle the Houthis. Over Saudi objections, Mr. Biden also reversed a last minute move by the Trump administration to officially designate the Houthis as a terrorist group.
At the same time, Iran stepped up its support for the Houthis. Tehran welcomed a Houthi diplomat to Iran and allowed the group to open an embassy. Iran has provided the Houthis with ballistic missiles, drones, training and advisers, according to Saudi and U.S. officials. Houthi forces have stepped up their drone and missile strikes targeting Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Irloo’s departure from Yemen comes amid a diplomatic deadlock in efforts to end the seven-year-old war. The U.S. and U.N. have hit repeated roadblocks in their efforts to broker a cease-fire while Houthi fighters have gained new ground on the battlefield.