As Mike Pompeo – now dubbed ‘Secretary of Hate’ by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – ramps up his daily rants against Iran in spite of universal pleas for the U.S. to lift sanctions in order to help Iran fight the spread of COVID-19, attention has again focused on the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the so-called Iranian opposition group based in Albania. The MEK has, of course, become a favourite of anti-Iran hawks in the U.S. and Europe who see it as a weapon against the government in Tehran. But what is the significance of the MEK in Western powers’ anti-Iran campaign? And what impact has the group had on its host country, Albania?
The exiled Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq organization (MEK) was relocated from Iraq to Albania in 2016, making the country a hub for anti-Iran activities. The move came as a result of efforts by the Obama administration to comply with a longstanding demand by Iraq to remove the MEK from their country. After it was found that no normal country was willing to take on this terrorist entity – EU member state Romania refused to host them – it fell upon Albania to accept the U.S. dollars and fulfil American demands. The UNHCR transferred the MEK as an entity rather than as individuals; the individual members were rendered undocumented and stateless as a result.
This state of affairs suited the new Trump administration, which revelled in the MEK’s regime change rhetoric. In 2017, U.S. support enabled the MEK to regroup and build an extraterritorial enclave inaccessible to the Albanian authorities into which the hapless members were placed. As expected, the MEK aggressively imposed its anti-Iran stance on the country’s political, security and media landscape through corruption, intimidation and propaganda, perverting the country’s foreign policy decisions to favour U.S. and Israeli demands. The same maverick and dangerous behaviour led the EU countries and the European Parliament to ban most MEK activities last year. The leader Maryam Rajavi left France and set up her new headquarters in Albania – MEK leadership cadre occupy an entire floor of the International Hotel in Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.
This shift to Albania came at a time when the EU Council has endorsed the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Unlike North Macedonia, Albania will have to show progress in a number of areas before negotiations start. The primary concerns raised in the Council’s decision are implementation of justice and electoral reforms, fight against crime and corruption, Albanian asylum seekers in the EU, amendment of media laws in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission. There can be no doubt that when a country’s system is rotten, scavengers will move in. The MEK are like rats chewing on tasty nuggets supplied by crime and corruption.
The situation of Gjergji Thanasi is a case in point. Thanasi, an award-winning investigative journalist, sued MEK member Behzad Safari for defamation, after Safari made scurrilous allegations against him. The case is dragging on because of corruption in the judicial system. Judges are removed, replaced, they don’t turn up, the public prosecutor does not turn up, the defendant does not turn up, the defence lawyers don’t turn up, the English language translator does not turn up. With such a broken system, a respected Albanian citizen cannot obtain justice against the defamatory statements made by a stateless member of a terrorist organization.
But, as destructive as the MEK presence has been in Albania, the group has inevitably played a greater role in the West’s confrontation against Iran. In June 2019, Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept revealed that an internet troll farm was operating from the MEK’s closed camp in Manez. The enslaved members, sitting behind banks of outdated computerware, were being used to manipulate social media messaging on Iran on a global scale. Hussain revealed that ‘Heshmat Alavi’, a self-proclaimed Iranian activist, “appears not to exist” and is “a persona run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK”.
Heshmat Alavi is the name of an account run by three MEK operatives working from London. They direct the online activities in Albania. There are thousands of ‘Heshmat Alavi’ style accounts created by the MEK on social media churning out false information, misinformation and trolling genuine opposition activists who do not share the MEK’s, nor the U.S. government’s regime change agenda.
Since the EU curtailed its activities there, the MEK has manipulated itself into a cosy symbiotic relationship with the U.S. Secretary of State. MEK social media combatants and its prolific websites echo Pompeo’s extremist anti-Iran statements and stances. In return, Pompeo references the MEK’s misinformation and propaganda in his speeches. Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, this positioning was not to the MEK’s advantage.
At a time when the WHO urged self-isolation and social distancing to prevent the virus’ spread, the MEK leaders, giddy with the false hope of regime change, urged Iranians to come into the streets and attack the police. Such reckless and futile statements in the name of regime change will not be forgotten or forgiven by Iranians. Nor will the MEK positioning itself alongside the country’s most virulent enemy, the U.S., at its time of greatest need be forgotten or forgiven.
Now that the world is being asked to work together to combat the spread of the virus, the U.S. and the MEK are increasingly finding themselves out on a limb as regards Iran. A political and moral self-isolation that will have serious repercussions in the future.
By MASSOUD AND ANNE KHODABANDEH, Balkans Post
Massoud Khodabandeh is the Director of Middle East Strategy Consultants and has worked long-term with the authorities in Iraq to bring about a peaceful solution to the impasse at Camp Liberty and help rescue other victims of the Mojahedin-e Khalq cult. Khodabandeh co-authored the book ‘The Life of Camp Ashraf – Victims of Many Masters’ with his wife Anne Singleton.
Anne Khodabandeh, is an expert in anti-terrorist activities and a long-standing activist in the field of deradicalization of extremists. She has written several articles and books on this subject, along with her husband, who is of Iranian origin.