On September 7, Albania announced its decision to sever diplomatic ties with Iran, giving all Iranian embassy staff 24 hours to leave the country. Staff at the Iranian embassy in Tirana rushed to vacate the premises and to secure or destroy all confidential documents. After the staff had left, the embassy building, situated barely 200 meters away from the Prime Minister Edi Rama’s office, was searched thoroughly by the counter-terrorism police for more than 30 minutes.
The Official Statement and Its Fallout
The official statement from Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama terms the decision as an ‘extreme response’ but one that is ‘fully proportionate’ to what the Albanian government believes was a well-planned and orchestrated cyberattack against the country’s government agencies by groups linked to Iran in July this year.
The United States and the United Kingdom have supported Albania’s decision, with the American National Security Advisor issuing a statement in support of Prime Minister Edi Rama and calling him up a day later. Iran has retorted to the Albanian accusations by calling them ‘baseless’ and deriding the government’s decision to sever diplomatic ties as ‘shortsighted’.
So what is happening and how have events reached such a high level of intensity?
Hosting the Mojahein-e-Khalq (MEK) at American Behest
Since 2016, Albania has been hosting the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a leftist guerilla group that was formed in Iran in 1965 in opposition to the Pahlavi regime and played a crucial part in ultimately overthrowing the Shah. After the 1978 Islamic Revolution, the MEK became a stiff opponent of the new government.
Iran has blamed the MEK for orchestrating terrorist attacks against Iranian citizens and interests, eventually banning the group in 1981 and designating it as a terrorist organization, after which the MEK shifted base to neighboring Iraq, then ruled by the anti-Iran dictator Saddam Hussein. In fact, a report published by the Iranian NGO Habilian Association in 2020, documents nearly 17,000 terrorism deaths of Iranian citizens since 1979, out of which the MEK is held directly responsible for 12,000.
Both the United States and the United Kingdom also designated the MEK as a terrorist organization in 1997 and 2001, respectively, only to revoke it in 2012 and 2008. With the coming of a pro-Iranian government in Iraq after 2003, the MEK ultimately set up its headquarters in Albania, a NATO member, under an arrangement facilitated by the US. Initially headquartered in the capital Tirana, the MEK now operates out of the western town of Manez.
Despite Albania’s decision to host the MEK being a clear provocation to Iran and an act of disregard for its national and security interests, Iran has rarely allowed this issue to come in the way of its rocky but sustained diplomatic ties with Albania.
Iranian Concerns and Rejection of Albanian Allegations
The recent decision, however, appears to have exceeded Iran’s patience. It has rejected Albania’s accusation that Iran sponsored four groups of hackers to launch a coordinated cyberattack on the country’s online government services on July 15, threatening the security of government records, public services, and confidential communication.
In fact, Iran alleges that the so-called ‘in-depth investigation’ that Albania claims to have carried out with support from American agencies, carries no weight. The spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Kanaani, has called out both the US and UK of earlier turning a blind eye to cyberattacks launched against Iranian systems, going so far as to suggest that such attackers enjoyed direct or indirect support from the two western powers.
Global Pressure Tactics
The Iranian government also believes that Albania’s decision might be part of a well-orchestrated tactic to embarrass Iran globally and increase international pressure on it at a time when Iranian negotiators are working with the EU and the Biden administration for the resumption of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.
Relations between Iran and Albania have been historically strained by the latter’s previous alignment with the Soviet Union and then, following its collapse, with the United States and NATO. The latest move is indeed an ‘extreme step’ aimed at bringing the Iranian regime under greater international pressure to comply with American demands.
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