Last week came news of the death of Iran's ambassador to Sanaa, Yemen under mysterious circumstances. Ayatollah Ali Yunesi includes Sanaa among the four Arab capitals he claims Iran now controls, the others being Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Pictured: The Iranian embassy in Sanaa. (Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)
The news last week of the death in mysterious circumstances of the Iranian ambassador to Sanaa reminded me of a 19th century English limerick:
Who and where and when and what
Is the Akhund of Swat
Is he lean or is he fat
Is he cold or is he hot
The Akhund of Swat?
The Akhund of Swat was a cleric leading a tribal rebellion against the British Raj in the badlands of Pashstunistan. The questions posed in the limerick went unanswered as, one foggy day in the mountains, the Akhund disappeared. And since no one could claim to have actually seen the Akhund, an endless number of fables were woven around his name.
The story of the Mystery Man of Sanaa started with a brief news item about his death. In it he was named as Brig. General Alireza Shahla'i, a mysterious Iranian operative wanted by the FBI. A few hours later, however, the name Shahla'i disappeared and the dead envoy was presented as Ambassador Hassan Ayerloo. A day later, FBI issued statement that the dead man was not Shahla'i, inspiring thoughts that, maybe, the Americans were hunting a shape-shifter of a ghost.
Initially, our mystery man was reported to have died of Covid-19 he had caught in Sanaa, presumably of Yemeni variety, and had been flown to Tehran for urgent treatment.
Then, perhaps thanks to a turbaned alumnus of Madison Avenue, the mullahs discovered the propaganda of Ayerloo's demise. Since it coincided with the anniversary of the "martyrdom" of Lt. General Qassem Soleimani of Iran's Quds Force it seemed cute to present Ayerloo as a Brigadier-General who had died in the service of "exporting revolution". But dying of the virus, something rather common these days in Iran, wouldn't qualify you for martyrdom. Thus the story was spun about the ambassador having been wounded at Sanaa Airport in a hostile action.
That version, however, contained its problems. Who was responsible for the hostile action? Blaming the American "Great Satan" at a time we were wooing it in Vienna could create complications. The Israeli "usual suspect" couldn't be blamed either because that would mean the "Zionist foe" that has been bombing our positions in Syria for five years is now able to also hit us in Yemen. Nor could we blame the Arab states of the Coalition with whom we have just started a "dialogue". Worse still wouldn't we lose face if people see that "the enemies of Islam" have killed two of our top generals in two years and we haven't lifted a finger to avenge the blood of martyrs?
To avoid such embarrassing questions, the Khomeinist propaganda machine spun the tale that Ayerloo actually wanted to become a martyr. The Iranian daily Kayhan, reflecting "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's views, claimed that Ayerloo had shown his passport to a friend, saying: Look at my photo! I won't be back alive with this passport.
Kayhan adds that Ayerloo had begged his ageing mother to pray for him to become a martyr like his two brothers who had been killed in the war against Iraq. "If you love me, pray to God to admit me into martyrdom," he said.
Later, other Khomeinist propaganda experts, presumably found that version rather problematic as it claimed that Ayerloo's martyrdom had been a matter of personal choice and that he had spent just a few months in Yemen to get what he wanted.
In the new version, Ayerloo was presented as Haj Hassan, a pious man who, like Soleimani, had been to Mecca for Hajj pilgrimage. Ayatollah Mohsen Qomi, the man in charge of "exporting revolution" from Khamenei's office, portrayed Ayerloo as something of a renaissance man: A great general, a deep thinker, a consummate diplomat and a masterful administrator.
The list of his achievements is long.
He had reorganized Ansar Allah, the armed wing of the Houthi movement, raising the number of its fighters from 1,000 in 2005 to over 10,000 last year. Thanks to Ayerloo's leadership, the Houthis, initially a small tribal group in Saada, northern Yemen, was built into a major political movement seeking to rule the whole of Yemen.
According to Kayhan, Ayerloo helped arm Ansar Allah -- who had nothing but antiquated guns nicked from Yemeni army arsenals -- with modern weapons. He also founded Yemen's first domestic armament industry, focusing on drones, rockets and missiles, assembled at first with kits from Iran but later manufactured in Sanaa.
Bringing in Iranian "advisers", Haj Hassan helped Ansar Allah assume the shape of a serious army while "specialists" from the Lebanese Hezbollah helped with teaching guerrilla tactics.
He had also helped destroy the Hezb al-Haqq, a Zaidi political movement that rejected the Khomeinist concept of "Walayat al-Faqih" (Rule by the Theologian), and campaigned for a republican system. To concentrate power in the hands of the Houthis, he also managed to marginalize the Young Faithful Forum, a north Yemeni outfit campaigning for the revival of the Zaidi Imamate based in Sanaa.
Kayhan also says that Ayerloo played a leading role in the Houthis' diplomatic schemes and succeeded in establishing a channel of communication between Ansar Allah on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. A few weeks before his martyrdom he was also finalizing the creation of " a dialogue" between Sanaa and the European Union.
Realizing that some might find it hard to believe that Haj Hassan had done all that in just a few months of his ambassadorial presence in Sanaa, a Kayhan editorialist says Ayerloo had "40 years of experience" in exporting revolution. He had first visited Yemen in 2004 to "probe possibilities," presumably for exporting revolution and had been in charge of the Yemeni dossier for some 12 years.
In other words, Haj Hassan had been Haj Qassem's satrap in Yemen, seeking support for Islamic Republic across the board.
Haj Hassan had promised to persuade the grand ayatollahs of Qom and Mashhad to lift traditional anathema and interdicts against the Zaidis who are regarded by Twelver Shiites as heretics. The irony is that Zaidism was born in Iran and once had a mini-state in the Iranian province of Tabarestan on the Caspian. So far, however, no grand ayatollah has issued the fatwa that Haj Hassan wanted for Zaidis.
Over the years, he brought over 400 Yemeni "talibs" (theology students) to Qom to train as future preachers for the Khomeinist version of Islam. But it seems that few returned to Yemen, preferring to stay in Iran or immigrate to Britain and Canada.
Ayatollah Ali Yunesi includes Sanaa among the four Arab capitals he claims Iran now controls, the others being Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Thus, at a time that Kayhan claims Haj Hassan has ensured the Houthis' total victory, the search is on for a new high-profile general as Satrap in Sanaa.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.