America’s Iran Policy Backed into a Corner by MEK in Albania

By Anne Khodabandeh
Since well before President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the U.S. and Iran have been in a de facto state of non-military warfare with sanctions, economic sabotage, cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns and social media attacks the weapons of choice. Both countries have exploited conflict in the region, especially after the rise of ISIS, to extend their military presence and reach.

While some in the U.S. have pressed for war with Iran at all costs, the U.S.’s lack of response to Iran’s attack on its bases in Iraq following the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani exposed a real problem. It is an open secret among military and security analysts that war with Iran is not an option; neither the U.S. nor Israel can pursue war with Iran without facing mutual destruction.

Others on the anti-Iran front have pushed for regime change. But this long-term push to manufacture or engineer the collapse of the ruling system and replace it with a conformist government has also failed to bring about any result.

Since 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has straddled these agendas but has failed to make progress on either. Rather than act as the diplomatic face of the American government, Pompeo leaned on his CIA skillset in the belief that covert and insidious activities by proxy activists can be used to influence, manipulate, manufacture and divert the course of action around Iran. Now, as a result of these policy failures and errors of judgement, the U.S. is losing ground and influence in the Middle East and beyond so that America’s front line with Iran has retreated trench by trench from military containment to a petty propaganda war fought in Albania.

Why Albania?

Albania, of course, is now home to the Iranian Mojahedin Khalq (MEK). For 40 years, since its exile from Iran — first to Iraq then to Albania — the MEK has promised to be the agent of regime change, either through war or insurgency. And, in spite of having no evidence of its efficacy, for 40 years anti-Iran elements in the west, particularly neoconservatives, have supported the group and its agenda to the almost total exclusion of other genuine opposition groups and movements.

This exaggerated role of the MEK in U.S. Iran policy again came to attention when Pompeo rescinded a directive to U.S. embassies barring “direct U.S. government engagement” with Iranian militant and opposition groups. It soon emerged that an MEK lobbyist Robert G. Joseph had met with Brian Hook, the U.S.’s special representative for Iran and senior adviser to Pompeo, before the assassination of Soleimani and again just afterwards. Statements by Pompeo over the past few months have echoed MEK propaganda showing his susceptibility to this influence.

This continued engagement with the MEK indicates that the Trump administration still clings to the delusion that the MEK has leverage or influence or power in relation to events in Iran. It does not. The enduring support of MEK by anti-Iran pundits defies logic. Nothing has been gained throughout the past four decades. Much has been lost that can be linked to this support. The MEK promises regime change but cannot even come close to delivering.

MEK Capabilities

One reason for this failure — that those who exploit the group are unwilling to acknowledge — is the total absence of support for the MEK among Iranians inside and outside the country. So unpopular are the MEK in Iran that protestors in the November fuel protests, who were warned falsely by Iran’s hardline security services that the MEK were behind the violence, went home and demanded the government create safe and suitable conditions for public protest. Similarly, the students who in January this year protested their government’s response to shooting down Ukrainian Flight 752, issued a strong statement denouncing interference from outside Iran. This was clearly meant to distance their protest from the hated MEK.

The main reason the MEK has failed to perform, however, is its own structural defect. It is a cult not an opposition group. The MEK is subject only to its own internal dynamics and obeys only its own laws. It has no respect for or need to abide by or adopt external norms and values, whether legal or moral. The MEK’s aim is to stay relevant, so it pays advocates and lobbyists to have its name broadcast and published as widely as possible. But its PR image does not reflect either the real capabilities or the effectiveness of the group.

The MEK’s infamous troll farm exposed by The Intercept comes close to explaining why some in the Trump administration and beyond still cling to the hope that the MEK’s propaganda activities might finally triumph by imposing their false narrative on events. But as much as they want to utilize the MEK, they should know by now that this group cannot deliver what it promises. Nor will the MEK ever come under the purview of U.S. control.

From its first arrival in Albania in 2013, the MEK continued its antagonistic anti-Iran political activities. In 2017, the Trump administration overturned plans to de-radicalize the MEK members. Instead, the MEK built an extra-territorial garrison to house the enslaved members so they wouldn’t escape. Emboldened, the MEK was able to coerce the Albanian government into pushing back against Iran through its embassy in Tirana. Following the Soleimani assassination two more Iranian diplomats were expelled from Albania and rapid response police were deployed to protect the MEK camp as though it were a diplomatic facility and not a refugee camp. Prime Minister Edi Rama was forced to admit that although Albania had accepted to host the MEK as a humanitarian gesture, the group now poses a national security issue for his country.

European Perspective

Europe has a different view of the MEK. Since arriving in Albania, the group came under increasing scrutiny by European security and intelligence services, including the formidable services of Albania itself. Experts on the MEK had warned that the group’s maverick behavior would result in the U.S.’s front line with Iran being redrawn in Albania. European tolerance for the MEK has been stretched by events from self-immolations in 2003 to the alleged bomb plot at Villepinte in 2018, violence in the European Parliament in 2018 and interference in Spain’s elections. Last year, the MEK’s activities began to be curtailed as permission was denied for demonstrations and the annual rally at Villepinte. The MEK leader Maryam Rajavi and her acolytes have now moved their headquarters to Albania where they occupy an entire floor of the International Hotel in Skanderbeg Square in Tirana. Meanwhile, Albania’s accession to the E.U. is doomed as long as the MEK remains active in that country and the E.U. now regards the U.S. with suspicion on this issue, not amity.

In Albania the people are angry. They see their government bending to U.S. and MEK demands to the detriment of their country. Support for the MEK is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with U.S. Iran policy. Instead of striving for effective diplomacy, Pompeo oversees an actively antagonistic Iran policy that shows contempt for and alienates the very people who are needed to effect change: the ordinary citizens of friendly countries and foes alike.