In response to a cyberattack it claims Tehran was behind, Albania recently severed diplomatic ties with Iran and withdrew its ambassadors. On September 8, 2022, Albanian special forces police stormed the Iranian Embassy in Tirana and encircled the surrounding area after being ordered by the Albanian government. The US has backed the Balkan nation. Iran informed Albania and the UN that it was not engaged, but it doesn’t seem likely that relations, which were already tight due to Albania’s harboring of a group that Tehran views as “terrorist,” will improve any time soon. As Washington backed Albania, the US imposed sanctions on Iran’s intelligence ministry, prompting Tehran to claim that Washington is fomenting conflict.
Albania was furious over a cyberattack that happened in July. In a video that it released on a website and a Telegram channel, a group going by the name “HomeLand Justice” claimed responsibility for the ransomware. The video was accompanied by alleged Albanian residence cards for alleged MEK (Mujahedeen-e-Khalq), an Iranian dissident group.
This was not the first time they had an argument. After comparing the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler six years prior, Albania expelled the Iranian ambassador in 2018 due to national security concerns. However, the action this week clearly indicates an increase in hostilities.
How the latest crisis unfolded?
The MEK, which Tehran regards as a “terrorist” organization for a series of bombings, killings, and armed incursions on Iranian soil during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, is the subject of Iran’s allegation of US involvement in the latest Albania-Iran crisis.
The MEK, which calls for the violent overthrow of the present Iranian system, is accused by Iran of being responsible for the murders of 17,000 Iranians, many of them women and children. Iran has also banned scores of US government personnel for their support of the MEK. Up until 2003, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein allowed the MEK to stay in Iraq as his guests and gave them money, weapons, and military supplies.
Because Tirana agreed to host the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) in 2013, relations between Tehran and Tirana have deteriorated. After pro-Iran militias started attacking MEK members in Iraq, Washington started to put pressure on Iraq. The organization was taken off a list of terrorist organizations by the US government in 2012. The MEK has been referred to as an “exiled Iranian cult dissident organisation” by the Rand Corporation. The MEK, which was founded on a Marxist-Islamist philosophy, continues to be a sect despite its public statements that it supports democracy and secularism today.
Since then, the firm has established itself in Albania, buying land outside the capital and establishing its base some 24 kilometers from Tirana. The Albanian government’s choice to accommodate MEK and tolerating its actions against Tehran has drawn criticism from the Iranian media.
The MEK is seen to be an organization acting as a hybrid tool against Iran and other countries less hostile to Iran in the cybersphere, and organizes conferences featuring right-wing Western politicians, who chant for regime change in Tehran.
Iran-Albania ties: ancient relations mired with polarized world politics
The Illyrians, the predecessors of current Albanians and the Persians, the largest ethnic group in Iran, are two ancient people whose cultural ties to Albania and Iran have been documented. Illyrians had largely assisted the Greek troops in its defense against the Persian Empire and had continued their cultural connections with Greeks.
The two nations are far apart, so it is uncertain when they initially got close, but it is very likely that they did so after World War II, when Iran was still ruled by the Pahlavi dynasty and Albania had just become a communist country. In the early stages of the Cold War, Pahlavi Iran sided with the United States whereas Albania, a communist state, sided with the Soviet Union against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War after the creation of the Islamic theocracy in Iran in 1979. This ultimately fueled upcoming hostilities between Albania and Iran, even after Albania transitioned to capitalism in the 1990s.
Iran initially tried to win the support of Albanians by taking part in the Kosovo War. There were reports of Iranian combatants there, and Iranian media openly reported on Albanians thanking Iran for its support and expressing a desire for a similar theocratic state, similar to the strategies Iran used to win the support of Bosniaks during the prior Bosnian War. Mohammad Khatami, the president of Iran, had sharply criticized NATO for bombing Yugoslavia in 1999.
As a result of Albania’s allying with the US, tensions between Iran and Albania had already been deteriorating. Iran established the “Koran Foundation of Kosovo” in an effort to persuade Albanians in both Albania and Kosovo to reject secularism and favor a Shi’a theocracy, but this effort was ineffective; Albanian authorities even started to crack down on the foundation.
Iran had refused to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence in 2008 as revenge for the crackdown on Iran-supported parties in Albania and Kosovo as well as the fact that Kosovo was a pro-Western American-backed state that fiercely opposed both Russia and China. The ties went further downhill after Albania agreed to host MEK.
Interested parties in the latest crisis
Republicans will undoubtedly use this episode to buttress their cases against diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic, even though it is highly improbable that Albania’s action against Iran will force the US to reverse direction on the nuclear deal. By doing this, the Albanians will gain favor in Washington and strengthen their case for more robust US aid, particularly in the area of cybersecurity.
In general, Albania’s policies have been more motivated by its desire to establish a solid relationship with Washington than by any desire to hurt Iran. Albania would regularly utilize Iran to woo the US, whose foreign policy is unmatched in Albania, and Israel, an Albanian ally. Nevertheless, by hosting the MEK, Albania became a participant in the Middle Eastern politics.
In the future, Israel will be eager to take advantage of Albania’s moves to increase international pressure on Tehran amid worries that the Iran nuclear deal might be reinstated. But the stormy winds of Middle Eastern volatility will brew over Europe through the Balkans.