The threat of Iranian made drones is no longer a concern for the West limited to the Ukraine war but farther afield, particularly in Africa. Recently, Moroccan officials voiced concerns about the drones being supplied to the Algerian-backed Polisario group which is fighting Moroccan forces in Western Sahara.
And now, these worries have been officially acknowledged by the British government at the highest level.
Western Sahara is a disputed region in the deep south of Morocco which was abandoned by Spain in 1975 and is currently the focus of a UN solution drafted by the Moroccans which would give semi autonomy to the region as a solution to defusing the conflict. Britain, it should be noted, largely supports Rabat’s initiative.
But drone attacks, if they start, could scupper all the progress on a UN level and return the region to a full on war zone which would not only cost the Moroccans billions of dollars but also put back UK-Morocco trade which currently stands at around 3bn GBP.
James Cleverly, the UK’s foreign minister and a friend of Morocco is growing increasingly concerned about Iran’s activities in particular its support of the Polisario and its close relations with Algeria. Just recently, on July 6th, in the House of Commons he acknowledged worries expressed by the former Africa minister James Duddridge MP:
“May I ask the Foreign Secretary to look at Iran’s activities elsewhere? He has already mentioned the provision of Russian drones” asks Duddridge. “I hear rumours that Iran has also provided drones to the Polisario in southern Algeria, which could destabilise a very fragile peace with the Moroccans in Western Sahara”.
Cleverly’s response was more diplomatic and measured, but showed he was also concerned about the rumours of Iranian drones to such groups like the Polisario.
“My hon. Friend, who knows the continent of Africa and its politics incredibly well, is absolutely right to highlight the fact that Iranian malign activity is not restricted to its own near neighbourhood or, indeed, the United Kingdom” he says. “We look very carefully at the credible reporting of the support through military equipment not just to Russia in its attack against Ukraine, but to militia groups and other military groups in the region and across Africa. I can reassure him that we will take that into account”.
But are the rumours based on real events or just on line chatter created by Algerian commentators?
In fact, Iran has long-established economic and military ties with Algeria, and Tehran has even acknowledged its sale of military drones to Algiers, but only informally which has created a certain amount of hysteria.
Polisario’s former interior minister Omar Mansour actually bragged 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 vexed Rabat.
In May 2018, Morocco broke off diplomatic relations with Iran for the third time over its support for the Front. Recently, with both a peace deal with Saudi Arabia – which cuts Iran some slack – and also boosted foreign earnings on oil (after US failed secondary sanctions) Iran, it seems, is flexing its muscles in the region.
Iran has recently deployed units of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Algeria to augment the training of Polisario fighters, according to Moroccan sources.
According to the Defence Post, 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.