Alex Grinberg is an expert on Iran based at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy. He warns that the Iranian regime’s export of drones to bad actors is now destabilising not only the region but, as Putin’s war in Ukraine has made clear, the wider world.
Drones and missiles are an integral part of Iran’s asymmetric power race, helping the regime carry out its regional policies in support of terrorist proxies, promoting chaos and conflict. The Iranian regime bet on drones as strategic military asset, since drones are much cheaper than conventional fighter aircraft, while their capacity to conduct attacks behind enemy lines renders them cutting edge and highly desirable for President Putin. Thus, exporting these drones to terror proxies has been an integral strategy of Iran’s drone production from day one. Iran’s drone diplomacy empowers the regime’s quest to expand its power base in the region.
Iran has supplied drones to its loyalists across the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza, and pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq. Venezuela also assembles Iranian drones, and more recently news about Iranian drone supply to the Polisario Front in Algeria has been triggering concern about stability in North Africa. While Iranian drones in the region have been promoting conflict and chaos since 2017, until the supply of Iranian drones for Russia’s war against Ukraine, this happened under the radars of Western media and decision-makers’ attention.
An example of ‘made in Iran’ regional destabilisation in the past five years includes the use of Iran-orchestrated attack drones by Yemeni Houthi rebels against the coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The Houthis launched a series of attacks on 23 March, 2017, crashing unarmed UAVs into the coalition’s Patriot surface-to-air missile defence system. Since then, they have deployed several Iran-made UAVs with explosive payloads over greater distances. On 14 September 2019, the Houthis used Iranian drones to attack oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia, better known as the Aramco attacks.
On 30 January 2022, the Houthis hit a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea with a drone boat. On 20 November 2022 Houthis drones attacked a commercial vessel at the oil terminal. On 1 July 2022 the IDF shot down three Hezbollah drones trying to approach the Karish gasfield. Iran also uses attack drones directly, not necessarily through its militias like the Houthis or Hezbollah. The IDF reported that Iran attempted to dispatch firearms and ammunition to Gaza with a drone. In September 2022 Iranian drones were used to attack the bases of Kurdish opposition in Iraq. The attack was one of the deadliest and claimed the lives of at least nine people. The most recent attack (February 10) was on an Israeli-owned tanker in the Arabian sea. And the list is long.
For the first time, Russia is in need of weapons assistance. Over the years the Kremlin neglected the realm of UAVs and, as a result, the Russian military currently has no satisfactory drone capacity in terms of both quantity and quality. By contrast, Iran is the only country capable of and willing to supply these weapons to the Kremlin (because selling drones to Russia is another source of revenue for the Tehran regime): a powerful synergy of immensely destructive potential. The more recent targeting of energy infrastructures and civilians in Ukraine by the Russian military using Iranian loitering munition and drones has at last drawn international attention to the Iranian regime’s close links with the Kremlin and its dangerous ‘drone diplomacy’. While drone attacks against Ukraine don’t impact the course of the war, their effect is devastating in terms of the human suffering and destruction inflicted on Ukrainians. In fact, Iranian drones enable the Kremlin to target the Ukrainian population directly, bypassing the fight with the Ukrainian military.
Other destabilising actors in the region who historically were recipients of Russian arms, now increasingly show interest in Iranian drone supply. Iranian media have boasted that the country is becoming a ‘drone superpower’. Top military adviser to the Supreme Guide of Iran Rahim Safavi announced that more than 20 countries are interested in purchasing Iranian drones.
After Russia, Algeria tops the client list. The state is notorious for human rights abuses, including restrictions on freedoms of speech and religion for Christians and other minorities, and with its people suffering abysmal socio-economic hardships. Tasneem, an Iranian IRGC-affiliated outlet, reported that Algeria intends to establish a centre for the research and development of UAVs in the city of Sidi Abdellah in Northern Algeria.
The Iranian outlet explicitly evoked the concerns of Morocco and Israel over the cooperation between Iran and Algeria in the realm of drones. Iranian supply of both loitering munition and attack drones to Algeria will intensify ties between the two authoritarian regimes. For example, piloting drones requires lengthy training onsite, and Iran is likely to dispatch Arabic-speaking Hezbollah instructors for this purpose. In either case, this growingly bold axis is bad news for Western interests in the region.
The Polisario Front, an Algerian benefactor and Iranian ally in the region staunchly opposes growing ties between its arch rival Morocco and Israel, and will not shy away from using Iranian drones against the former. This may threaten stability and security in North Africa, potentially posing an acute threat to Western interests in the region: a potential escalation of the Western Sahara conflict; undermining the energy security for which Western countries like Germany have been looking to Algeria; and perhaps even humanitarian repercussions, including immigration waves resulting from regional instabilities.
While no country with an interest in regional peace and stability should purchase drones from the Iranian regime, the US should exert pressure to prevent this unholy axis of authoritarian regimes to gain cutting-edge destructive capabilities ‘made in Iran’. And not just due to the moral dimension of geopolitics.
Iranians often use Hezbollah personnel to instruct Arabic-speaking militias. For this reason, delivering weapons from Iran to Polisario through the incontestable mediation of Algeria also means increasing the presence of Hezbollah in North Africa. Algeria may encourage Polisario to attack Morocco more violently now that it has Iranian drones. In turn, this will lead to a harsher Moroccan response. As a result, the already existing tension between the two countries due to Algeria’s support for the Polisario guerillas risks spinning out of control.
The Ukrainian people’s bitter suffering unmasked the Iranian regime’s globally destructive potential beyond the nuclear threat. It is high time for national interests and the democratic values of the Free World to converge into a united strategy preventing the Iranian regime’s destructive drone diplomacy from spreading and destabilising any further.