Following a cyberattack on its IT system, Albania accused Iran and cut all diplomatic ties. In the background, the conflict over the hosting of anti-ayatollah Iranian movement MEK
On September 7, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced in a video message his government’s decision to cut off, effective immediately, the diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, accusing Tehran of being the author of a massive cyberattack which hit the digital infrastructure of the Balkan country on July 15.
According to the head of the government the breach was carried out by four Iran-affiliated groups and was unsuccessful. Its objectives were to paralyse Albania’s digital public services, steal data, and take possession of governmental communications. Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Olta Xhaçka declared that Tirana decided to sever diplomatic relations after consultations with US and EU allies. Iranian diplomats left the country in the following hours.
To conduct the investigation on the breach, Albania hired American cybersecurity company Mandiant and Microsoft, which found out that the hackers undermined around 10% of Albania’s governmental digital network and have had access to the system since May 2021. NATO, USA, EU, and Great Britain officially supported Tirana after the strike, which was followed by another cyber-attack on the customs border patrol’s computer system on September 10, always to be blamed on Tehran according to Albania’s government. The Balkan country has entered in a climate of hybrid warfare (as happened with Estonia in 2007), paying the price for being a NATO member and a main ally of America’s foreign policy and its interests.
Officially denying any responsibility for this wave of cyber-violations, Tehran pins the breakdown of relations with Albania on a Washington-designed “plot”, mentioning the hosting by Tirana of the exiled Iranian organisation Mujahedeen El-Khalq (Mek ), counting 3,000 members and at the core of the tensions between Tirana and Tehran.
The organisation’s mission is to overthrow Teheran’s theocratic government. Founded in Iran in 1965 to oppose the policies of the Pahlavi dynasty’s last emperor and operating in an internal political context defined by Islamist-Marxist ideology, anti-capitalism, and anti-Americanism, MEK took part in the insurrection that brought to power the ayatollah Khomeini (1979). Advocating for the separation between state and church, the group clashed with the theological republic installed in Tehran, becoming the target of violence, judicial persecutions, and execution of its members. The repression forced the group’s leaders to take refuge in Paris and accept relocation to Iraq in return for militarily supporting Baghdad’s war against Iran (1980–1988). MEK took the shape of a secret organisation, which obliged its members to practice celibacy, while its unsuccessful anti-Iranian military struggle continued even after the Baghdad–Tehran armistice. In 1991, the organisation contributed to Saddam Hussein’s successful effort to crush the Kurdish rebellion that had broken out at the end of the Gulf War in Northern Iraq. Identified by the US Department of State as the author of the assassination of 6 American citizens in Iran in the 70’s, MEK was designated as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO) by Washington. EU, Canada, Japan, and Great Britain followed suit and added the group into their list of terrorists. The US disarmed the group after the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003 and listed its members as “protected persons” under the 1949 Geneva Convention, later having the movement removed from the FTO list. MEK’s internal “restyling” in this period included its official abandonment of the use of violence. Iran’s rising influence in Baghdad, after the formation of a Shia-led filo-Tehran government, forced the US to search a sanctuary outside the Middle East for the group that had become the target of armed attacks. After Romania’s refusal to give them shelter – as asked by the UN on humanitarian grounds, Albania stepped up – a new NATO member at the time and very close US ally since the 1990s – to heed America’s request. In 2006, Albania had already taken in the Chinese Uighurs that had been detained in Guantanamo and again last year it accepted to host Afghan civilians (many of which were US collaborators) fleeing Kabul after the Taliban’s return to power.
The USA expressed gratitude for this UN coordinated accommodation. However giving shelter to a group posing as a future government-in-exile and promoting cyber-propaganda and annual rallies calling for the overthrow of the ayatollahs automatically placed Tirana in a diplomatic conflict with Iran. The expulsion of Middle Eastern diplomats, detection of anti-MEK planned attacks, and exchanges of accusations between both countries’ highest authorities have preceded the current escalation.
Trump, Iran, and Albania
After the relaxation of relations between Iran and the West in the late stage of Obama’s presidency and the resumption of economic activities on oil trade, Tehran and the USA clashed again during Trump’s term. The tycoon unilaterally withdrew Washington from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) designed to limit Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, resumed the sanctions policy against Tehran and ordered the execution of Qasem Soleimani, leader of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In this context, Trump’s administration saw MEK as a leverage to exert pressure on the ayatollahs’ regime to weaken it, inducing Tehran to renounce plans of regional hegemony in the Middle East and activities against US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. In Albania, all major political forces consider it fruitful accommodating MEK, well aware that the USA is the only reliable ally on overall security. Apart from verbally condemning the cyberwarfare against Albania, Washington has recently sanctioned Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and its minister Esmail Khatib for “malign cyber activities”, while National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called Edi Rama to express America’s solidarity after the cyberattack.
Sanctions on MOIS and Khatib will remain symbolic due to the fact that the ministry and its responsible person do not possess assets in the USA liable to be seized, but their consequences on attempts between Iran and the West to resume talks on JCPOA are huge. Tehran’s cyberwarfare on a NATO country calls into question the Middle Eastern country’s willingness to reach a new worthwhile agreement on its nuclear programme for both counterparts. On the one hand, Western European countries, which are involved in the talks, need to normalise relations with Iran in order to purchase its natural gas (17% of world reserves are located there) after facing hardships with Russian supply due to the Ukrainian War; on the other hand, the Islamic Republic needs revenues in order to bring technological improvements to the domestic market of this form of energy.
Gjergji Kajana – Balcanicaucaso