Speaking at a memorial event for Iran's ambassador to the Houthis Hassan Eyrlou, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Tuesday (December 28) called for a "political solution" to the war in Yemen.
Eyrlou -- a "friend and comrade" of the late Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qassem Soleimani -- died of COVID-19 on December 21 after being airlifted to Tehran.
"We believe that it is necessary to form a government in which all Yemeni parties participate, to maintain the national unity and sovereignty of Yemen," said Amir-Abdollahian, who is known for his close relationship with the IRGC-QF.
But critics were quick to note the hypocrisy of this remark, pointing out that Eyrlou's presence in Yemen had actively undermined the peace process.
While he was in Sanaa, the former IRGC officer served as the de facto governor of Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen, and had directed military operations in these areas, including the Houthis' assault on Marib.
Even so, the relationship between Iran and the Houthis had latterly appeared to be under strain, with some saying that Eyrlou's illness had provided the Houthis an "opportunity" to demand his departure.
Instead of taking the opportunity to move Yemen towards peace, however, Iran is making plans to replace Eyrlou.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Monday announced that plans are under way to send a new ambassador to Sanaa, Asharq al-Awsat reported.
Like Eyrlou, the new ambassador must be smuggled into Yemen, against the will of the people and the international community, observers noted.
This is because, after more than seven years of a brutal and protracted war that has had disastrous consequences for the Yemeni people, only Iran backs and recognises the Houthis' authority in Sanaa.
"Soleimani was entrusted with the task of expanding the IRGC's influence in the region," political analyst Waddah al-Jalil told Al-Mashareq.
Under his direction, the IRGC-QF and Iranian proxy Lebanese Hizbullah intervened in Yemen to further Iran's interests -- a role both continue to play.
The Arab coalition, which intervened in the war in support of the Yemeni government in 2015, on December 26 accused Iran and Hizbullah of helping the Houthis launch missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia, AFP reported.
Arab coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said the Houthis were "militarising" Sanaa airport and using it as a "main centre for launching ballistic missiles and drones" towards the kingdom.
During a news conference, he showed a video clip which he said depicted "the headquarters of Iranian and Hizbullah experts at the airport" where, he alleged, "Hizbullah is training the Houthis to booby-trap and use drones".
Other clips depicted a Hizbullah element placing explosives in a drone, and a man al-Maliki identified as a Hizbullah official telling Houthis "we must strengthen our ranks". The footage could not be independently verified.
Under the direction of Soleimani's successor, Esmail Qaani, the IRGC-QF has continued to arm and fund the Houthis, who seized control of Sanaa from the internationally recognised government in a September 2014 coup.
The long, bitter war has brought the country to the brink of collapse, and has stirred regional turmoil, with the Houthis attacking Saudi Arabia from across its southern border and attempting to control the strategic Bab al-Mandeb strait.
The United Nations estimates the conflict will have claimed 377,000 lives by the end of the year through both direct and indirect impacts, AFP reported, and 80% of Yemen's population of about 30 million is dependent on humanitarian aid.
Yemenis pay the price
Observers note that Iran's intervention has done nothing to help the Yemeni people, who are paying a heavy price for Soleimani's scheme of making Yemen a front line in Iran's regional proxy wars -- and has done much to harm them.
"The support and attention that Soleimani succeeded in giving the Houthis have devastated Yemen, and inflicted heavy damage on the countries of the region," said political analyst Faisal Ahmed.
Soleimani's death two years ago "left a void for the IRGC in implementing the plans that he had drawn for the Houthis", he said.
That is why Iran dispatched Eyrlou "to directly supervise the Houthis and carry out military operations against Yemeni cities, international shipping lanes and Saudi economic facilities", Ahmed said.
These actions "prolonged the war and consequently devastated Yemen at all levels, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world", he added.
Observers warn that any successor to Eyrlou is likely to continue on this path.
"The IRGC's strategy was to reach Yemen in order to be close to the rich Gulf countries," Abaad Centre for Strategic Studies director Abdul Salam Mohammed told Al-Mashareq last year, on the first anniversary of Soleimani's death.
It sought to establish a presence in densely populated areas "to create a future army that would help realise its dream of seizing control of holy sites and oil sites", he said, and the Houthis were "the necessary tool" for that strategy.
"Soleimani's role was to accelerate the implementation of Iran's strategy, which includes seizing Sanaa and Damascus as well as Beirut and Baghdad, and his [death] will not change that strategy," Mohammed said.
"There are replacements for him in the IRGC, albeit not as powerful," he added.