Albania becomes a frontline in the proxy battle between Iran and the US
By hosting the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) on behalf of the US, despite the group being labelled a terrorist organization by Iran, Albania has drawn the ire of Supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
The acting Albanian foreign minister Gent Cakaj announced on his Facebook account that an additional two Iranian diplomats would be expelled from Albania. This follows a decision in 2018 which expelled the Iranian ambassador and has made Albania a frontline in a clash between the United States and Iran.
The decision to expel the Iranian diplomats seems likely a result of the comments made by Iran’s powerful Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the aftermath of Qasem Soleimani’s assassination at the hands of the US in which he said: “In a very small European country but an evil country in Europe, there are American elements with some Iranian traitors, they got together to conspire against the Islamic Republic.”
In 2014, under US pressure, Albania took in more than 4,000 members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) a secretive group formerly based Iraq.
“Albania is hosting one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations on behalf of the United States,” says Dr Olsi Jazexhi, an Albanian academic and expert who has been tracking MEK activities in Albania.
“The Americans imposed them [MEK] on Albania and since Albania is a very fragile state they had to accept. The same thing was done by Prime Minister Edi Rama who is still hosting MEK in Albania,” Jazexhi tells TRT World.
Considered a terrorist group by Iran, the MEK was also listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department until 2012.
The Obama administration re-designated the group and formalized a relationship that the US had been cultivating covertly, protecting the group in Iraq at a US military base, then under American occupation.
“The reason for the MEK being brought to Albania is the general ignorance of Albanian politicians who do not understand the danger of international terrorism and the implications that this terrorism has on nation-states” added Jazexhi.
The MEK is a militant political organization that subscribes to an unusual mixture of Marxist and Islamic ideology.
It has been accused of killing of American military personnel, bombing American companies and targeting innocent Iranian civilians during a campaign of terror over several decades.
A report by the US media outlet NBC News suggested that the group is being financed by Israeli intelligence and was also behind a string of assassinations targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists between 2007 and 2015.
“The MEK is deeply despised in Iran, they fought for Saddam Hussein against Iran for eight years. Then they spied for the Americans and the Israelis, they are mercenaries and a cult group,” said Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Professor of English Literature and Orientalism at the University of Tehran.
Former members of the MEK have spoken out about the oppressive cult-like rules enforced in the organization, including marriages that have to be arranged by the leadership. There have been reports that the organization has at times asked its followers to divorce in masse and locked up and even killed members who have criticized the dogma of Maryam Rajavi, the current head of the MEK.
“No one in Iran has any sympathy or respect for them [MEK], they are traitors to the country. They are tools of Western powers. Thousands of them are working as an online army in Albania,” said Marandi speaking to TRT World.
Earlier this year The Intercept, an online investigative publication reported on how the MEK had created a fake online persona called Heshmat Alavi in order to spread propaganda against the Iranian government, including advocating for regime change.
The so-called writer Alavi was managed in part from Albania and had fooled many American publications who had published the fake persona’s writing.
“Using different aliases on the internet, on Facebook as well as Twitter” they have managed to create a digital army, says Marandi, adding: “These social platforms do not block their activities because it is done in coordination with the US government and also, they carry out spying activities in Iran.”
The US assassination of Iranian general Soleimani and the subsequent retaliation by Tehran in a series of rocket attacks on US bases underscores the dangerous maneuverings between the two powers and the potential to suck in other countries, including the small Balkan state of Albania.
“Albania has become the most dangerous country in the world for Iran after the United States and Israel,” says Jazexhi.
“While the United States and Israel are in open conflict with Iran, Albania by hosting MEK has become a major center of anti-Iranian propaganda in the world.
The MEK doesn’t lack powerful friends in Washington and in particular enjoys close ties with the hawkish Trump administration. In 2017 the group paid National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudi Giuliani for speaking engagements.
With powerful friends like this, Albanian politicians don’t “dare to do anything” says Jazexhi even though “the majority of Albanians are appalled by what the government is doing.”
The MEK could also be acting against the Albanian penal code says Jazexhi.
“The Albanian penal code states very clearly that if a person or a group of people incites to fight against a foreign country or incites people or asks people to participate in a conflict in a foreign country, they could be persecuted for this,” adds Jazexhi.
MEK actions in an impoverished country like Albania, which is still struggling to emerge from a communist dictatorship, doesn’t bode well for its long-term stability or rule of law. Iraq has become a battleground of influence between the US and Iran, a faraway conflict for many Albanians.
“When you host terrorists and you aid terrorists than you should be afraid of suffering the consequences. These are not normal people,” says Marandi. “The Albanian government is foolish to cooperate in such a way with the Americans.”
Albanian President Ilir Meta shot back at comments made by Khamenei saying: “Albania is not a devilish country, but a democratic one.” However, Meta made no mention of the lack of democratic structures within the MEK and the human rights violations it has been accused of.
“MEK with its paramilitary camps that they have in Manza, Albania has created a state within a state,” says Jazexhi and as tensions between Iran and the US continue to heat up the role that the MEK is playing in Albania could also make it another theatre of conflict.