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Destabilizing Africa: Iranian Drones Menace Morocco

Tehran is expanding its influence in Africa, replicating its Middle East playbook by arming rebel Shiite groups.

For decades the Islamic Republic of Iran has engaged in asymmetric confrontations with regional rivals across the Middle East, extending its influence through supporting foreign guerrilla groups with military hardware and training.

Over the last several years, Iran has been expanding and deepening its influence into a new area: Africa, most notably the Sahel and Maghreb. In countries such as Senegal, the Central African Republic, and Nigeria, Iran has been replicating its Middle East playbook by arming and training rebel Shiite groups.

In this way, Iran is gaining a foothold in a strategic and resource-rich area adjacent to vital Western shipping lanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

Drone Transfers Via Algeria

Iranian subversion could have the greatest geopolitical consequences in the Sahara region of northwest Africa. With its mounting support for state and non-state opponents of Morocco, Iran seeks to undermine a staunch Western ally that serves as a bedrock of stability in a troubled neighborhood.

The most acute concern for Morocco is the supply of Iranian attack drones to the Polisario Front. The guerrilla group has conducted a decades-long military struggle to detach the Western Sahara from Morocco, and the Front has enjoyed the sustained support of Algeria, Morocco’s regional rival and antagonist.

Morocco’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Omar Hilale, has repeatedly highlighted the drone transfers via Algeria and warned that Morocco will react in an “appropriate manner.”

However, Iranian subversion reaches deeper inside Morocco through its persistent campaign to radicalize and recruit disaffected members of the Kingdom’s Shiite minority.

Members of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army take part in a ceremony to mark 40 years after the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was proclaimed by the Polisario Front in the disputed territory of Western Sahara at the Rabouni Saharawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, on Feb 26, 2016
Members of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army take part in a ceremony to mark 40 years after the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was proclaimed by the Polisario Front in the disputed territory of Western Sahara 2016. Photo: Farouk Batiche/AFP

Iran-Algeria Ties

Iran has long-established economic and military ties with Algeria, and Tehran has acknowledged its sale of military drones to Algiers. Completing the loop, Polisario’s former interior minister Omar Mansour boasted last year that the group was taking delivery of Iranian drones and would deploy them to target Moroccan security forces.

Senior Moroccan officials have detailed how Iran has been using its Lebanese proxy militia Hezbollah to provide military training and support to Polisario guerrillas based at the Tindouf refugee camp in Algeria. This support goes back to 2017 and has long irritated Rabat.

In May 2018, Morocco broke off diplomatic relations with Iran for the third time over its support for the Front. Upping the ante, Iran has recently deployed units of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Algeria to augment the training of Polisario fighters.

Speaking on background, Moroccan officials shared intelligence that revealed how Algeria has optimized little-used airstrips for drone operations. These airstrips are in desolate areas of Algeria close to the border with Morocco.

Moroccan officials have also tracked shipments of military hardware by air from Iran to unspecified countries in North Africa. These shipments, delivered to Polisario fighters via Algeria, included drones, radar equipment, and ballistic missile systems.

A Moroccan soldier at a checkpoint in Western Sahara
A Moroccan soldier at a checkpoint in Western Sahara. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP

Regional Stability

Iran’s accreting support for Algeria and Polisario threatens not just Morocco, but also the stability of the broader region. Morocco has long been a strategic bulwark in North Africa, a moderate Islamic country with a fast-growing economy and deepening economic relationships with its fellow African countries.

These economic and political foundations underpin Morocco’s emergence as a dependable strategic nexus between the US/Europe and the entire African continent.

Iranian efforts to destabilize Morocco are congruent with Iran’s antagonism to Israel. Morocco-Israeli relations have been quickly warming across diplomatic, economic, and military spheres in the wake of the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords.

The agreement formalized a decades-long unofficial cooperation between Morocco and Israel and underlined the centrality of the Kingdom to the US policy of strengthening ties with key strategic allies in the Middle East. The fact that the accords include two African countries (Morocco and Sudan) indicates the strategic importance Washington attaches to the continent.

The recent agreement by Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize diplomatic relations may relieve pressure on some of the major friction points in the Middle East but is unlikely to temper Iranian expansionist activities in Africa.

Over the last few years, geopolitical discussions of Africa have focused on what the US and its European allies can or should be doing to counter Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Russian activities across the region.

It is Iran’s mounting policy of subversion in Africa — highlighted by the introduction of its military drones to the Sahara — that demands greater scrutiny.

Headshot Lonzo CookLonzo Cook is a journalist, writer, host of the Discern This podcast, and senior communications strategist.

He spent almost two decades at CNN in several senior global editorial positions, including interim bureau chief in Jerusalem and Delhi. He also was on the front line of global events leading breaking news teams in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Chile, and Haiti.

In addition to writing on international affairs, national security, and business, he works with media companies and corporations on how to evolve and create content to stay relevant to key audiences.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

The Defense Post aims to publish a wide range of high-quality opinion and analysis from a diverse array of people – do you want to send us yours? Click here to submit an op-ed.

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