Iran carries out operation to free diplomat held in Yemen

Iran said Thursday that a team of special operatives has freed an Iranian diplomat abducted more than 19 months ago in Yemen, a rare acknowledgement by Tehran of an intel operation carried out on foreign soil.

The official IRNA news agency quoted deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdolahian as saying that intelligence officers undertook a "difficult and complicated operation" to secure Nour Ahmad Nikbakhat's freedom from the "hands of terrorists."

Amirabdollahian added that the operation took place "in a very special area in Yemen," without elaborating or providing further details.

The diplomat, who was stationed in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa at the time of his abduction, returned home on Thursday, the report said. State TV broadcast footage of Nikbakht arriving at Tehran airport and being welcomed by Iranian officials, his family and relatives.

In July 2013, armed men stopped an Iranian diplomat's car as he was driving in Sanaa, forced him into their vehicle and sped away. No one claimed responsibility but the abduction was blamed on al-Qaida-linked militants. The diplomat's name was not disclosed at the time.

Iran's intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, told state TV that his officers carried out the operation to free Nikbakhat at "minimum cost" and without giving in to the aductors' demands — a comment that suggests there had been negotiations over the diplomat's fate.

In January 2014, another Iranian diplomat in Sanaa — economic attache Ali Asghar Asadi — was killed in a drive-by shooting in a busy commercial district. Yemeni security officials said their investigation suggested the gunmen first attempted to kidnap Asadi by stopping his car. When the diplomat resisted, the assailants shot him and fled the area.

At the time, relations between Iran and Yemen had soured over what Sanaa called Iranian meddling in its domestic affairs.

Yemen's government and neighboring Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia accused Tehran of supporting Shiite rebels in the country's north in an alleged effort to destabilize the impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation. Iran has dismissed the accusations.

Last year, the Shiite rebels known as the Houthis spread from their northern heartlands and fought their way across Yemen, seizing the capital, Sanaa, last September and several surrounding provinces.

The crisis has threatened to split Yemen and push the country into full-blown sectarian warfare. Though Tehran denies any military backing of the Houthis, Arab Gulf countries are unnerved by Shiite Iran's increasing assertiveness in the region.