Albania no longer appears willing to host a cult-like Iranian dissident group it has sheltered since 2014.
On June 20, Albanian authorities raided Ashraf-3, the compound outside of Tirana home to 3,000 Iranian opposition fighters for the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). The MEK relocated from Iraq to Albania as part of a 2014 deal brokered by the United States, but Albania has accused it of violating the terms of the agreement.
“MEK has not respected the 2014 agreement,” said the Albanian interior ministry after the raid. While the MEK was “settled in Albania for humanitarian purposes alone,” the ministry said, “unfortunately, this group has not adhered to these commitments, breaching the agreement.”
The MEK said that one of its members was killed in the raid while many more were injured, but Albanian interior minister Bledi Çuçi said, “I guarantee you that the death of the person in the compound was not caused by the state police.”
“Albania has no intention of being at war with the Iranian regime. Albania does not accept anyone who has abused our hospitality,” said prime minister Edi Rama, referencing the MEK’s continuation of “political operations” from Albania.
Cult or freedom fighters?
The MEK originated as an Islamist-Marxist militia founded in opposition to the US-backed Shah of Iran. It played a major role in the I979 revolution before falling out with the newly-established Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini and joining forces with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein against Iran in the bloody Iran-Iraq War. Its bombing attacks within Iran have killed numerous officials as well as a president and prime minister, and Americans have been killed by its attacks.
“It is no exaggeration to say that perhaps nothing unites Iranians today more than opposition to the MEK and their agenda,” said Iranian historian Arash Azizi. “Not only are they not popular amongst Iranians, they are despised and hated by Iranians across the political spectrum.”
While in exile in Iraq, there were numerous reports of torture, sexual abuse, and medical sterilisation of members within its Camp Ashraf compound as its leaders—Massoud and Maryam Rajavi—developed a cult of personality.
The MEK was designated as a terrorist group by the United Kingdom until 2008, by the European Union until 2009, and by the United States until 2012 but has since built an incredibly successful lobbying network in Western capitals that it uses to push for regime change in Iran.
It counts Rudy Giuliani—a US politician turned personal lawyer to former US president Donald Trump—and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton among its paid speakers and former Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša as one of its staunchest supporters in calling for regime change in Iran.
On July 1, former UK prime minister Liz Truss and former US vice-president and possible presidential candidate Mike Pence spoke at high-profile MEK conference in France.
The MEK’s relocation to Albania—a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)—came after attacks on their camp in Iraq by pro-Tehran militias, and Tehran responded to the relocation agreement with fury towards Tirana.
In 2022, multiple cyberattacks attributed to Tehran targeted Albanian government websites.
Some 95 per cent of government services in Albania are provided online. After a cyberattack forced the government to suspend daily operations as websites used for everything from paying utilities to obtaining driver’s licenses went down, Rama severed diplomatic relations with Iran and considered invoking NATO’s Article Five. Article Five obligates a collective response from the alliance if any member is attacked and has only been triggered once—by the US after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“It’s like bombing a country,” said Rama of the cyber strike. Ultimately, however, it became clear that many NATO allies did not want to be dragged into a confrontation with Iran, and Tirana abstained from invoking Article Five.
Now, however, new talks for an informal agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear programme are underway between Western and Iranian officials, and Europeans and the Biden Administration alike are looking to lower tensions with Tehran.
Although the July 1 gathering in France eventually went ahead, the MEK was initially denied permission to hold it by French authorities. While it is unlikely that Tehran will be able to secure the extradition of MEK members, Iranian officials welcomed news of the raid in Albania, with a spokesperson for its foreign ministry saying, “We hope the Albanian government will take the practical and responsible step against the group of the hypocrites.”
The moment presents Tirana with the opportunity to de-escalate tensions with Tehran and potentially stave off more cyberattacks.
“Our country is used as a trench in a war that is not ours, it does not work!” said Rama. “Of course, they [the MEK] have every right to fight for their freedom, but to do so they must leave Albania.”
By Devin Haas – Emerging Europe