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The "little devilish country" - why Albania arouses the anger of Iran
"There is a small but diabolical European country where Americans are plotting against Iran's traitors against the Islamic Republic." These words were spoken by none other than the spiritual and state head of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameni. And that shortly after the Iranian general, Ghassem Soleimani, was killed by a US drone in early January 2020.
The country that Khamenei speaks of, and which has come into the focus of international politics in the middle of the worsening conflict between the US and Iran, is Albania. The government of the NATO member state in the Balkans welcomed the killing of Soleimani immediately afterwards. Shortly thereafter, the government expelled two Iranian diplomats from the capital Tirana for activities that were incompatible with their diplomatic status.
USA and Albania - an "unshakable alliance"
But what does the small Adriatic country have to do with the major conflicts of this world? The story goes back a few years and is associated with the members of the so-called Mojahedin-e-Khal (MEK). This Iranian organization, usually known as the "People's Mujahedin", has long acted against the Islamist regime in Iran from neighboring Iraq.
In 2009 Albania became a member of NATO together with Croatia
Because the lives of MEK members have been endangered more and more often by Iranian rocket attacks since the fall of Saddam Husein - the leadership in Iran's capital Tehran sees the MEK as a terrorist organization - the Americans, allied with the regime opponents, tried for years to find a place to stay. Ultimately, the NATO country Albania, the US's most loyal ally in the Balkans, agreed to accept more than 3,000 MEK supporters.
After a humanitarian contract between the Albanian and American governments in 2013, they were resettled in Albania. The admission came as part of "the unshakable alliance with the US," said Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama in a reaction to Khamenei's threat last week.
Rama sees the admission of the People's Mujahedin as a risk for his country - but also as "a risk that Albania honors and continues the Albanian tradition". This means the protection of the Jews in Albania during the Second World War, not a single one of whom was extradited to the Nazis.
The People's Mojahedin do not feel safe anywhere
Today the People's Mujahedin live in a large, well-secured camp near the Adriatic city of Durrës, less than 30 kilometers away from Tirana. After Iran threatened retaliation for the killing of Soleimani, they are afraid. The security measures around the camp have been tightened significantly. MEK's legal advisor in Albania, Behzad Saffari, tells Deutsche Welle that the People's Mujahedin cannot feel safe anywhere.
"We are threatened by the terror of the Iranian regime all over the world. The Iranian embassy in Tirana and also the embassies in other capitals of Europe are centers of this regime's terrorist operations," continued Saffari. That his organization is the target of Iranian espionage has also been confirmed by the German security authorities.
MEK representatives in Tirana welcome the expulsion of the Iranian diplomats. "This is a courageous and worthy step in the fight against terrorism and to protect Albania's national security. And it protects Iranian dissidents in exile," says Saffari.
The consequences for the security of Albania
The admission of the People's Mujahedin has repeatedly led to tensions between Albania and Iran in recent years. In October 2019, for example, the Albanian police uncovered a terrorist cell controlled by the regime in Tehran. Their goal: to organize terror attacks against the MEK in the Balkans. Albania's police see the group as part of the elite troops of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, known as "Quds" (Arabic for Jerusalem).
Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama (r.) And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Tirana in June 2019.
"There is an ever more concrete threat to Albania from the Iranian regime," says Albanian security expert Redion Qiriazi, "primarily from individual cyber and terrorist attacks. Iran has stable and proven capacities in this regard. These attacks could be carried out on Albanian territory , but also in other countries where Albanian soldiers are part of international troops, especially in the Middle East or Central Asia, "Qiriazi told DW.
Such actions threaten not only Albania but the entire Balkans, says MEK advisor Saffari: "In Iran's long-term strategy, the Balkans are the gateway for Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Europe." The American general Michael Barbero said at a security conference in Tirana in early January that Albania must be vigilant because any US ally could come into focus of Iran. He assured the country of the support of the USA and NATO: "The alliance will react to any attack against one of its members".
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