Why Iran’s agents hound political refugees in distant Albania

Iraqi police vehicles block an entrance to Camp Ashraf, home to the exiled People’s Mujahedin, northeast of Baghdad, in 2009. The sanctuary was repeatedly targeted by local Iranian proxies and Iraqi security forces. (AFP)
Updated 05 July 2019

Why Iran’s agents hound political refugees in distant Albania

  • An estimated 4,000-plus political refugees resettled in Albania remain in the Iranian intelligence's crosshairs
  • The People's Mujahedin of Iran members resettled in Albania in recent years have all but fallen off the world's radar

ABU DHABI: They are among the most dedicated and formidable opponents of the Tehran regime, but since their move from Iraq to Albania as part of a refugee resettlement program, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran have all but fallen off the world’s radar.

Despite being under constant threat and facing pressure to lie low in their new surroundings, the group remains one of the biggest and best organized in opposition to the Iranian leadership.

Now, however, with tensions between Iran and the US rising and no sign of weakening in Washington’s “maximum pressure” approach, the group — known variously as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) and Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) — has a chance to prove its political relevance as the Tehran regime faces possibly its biggest crisis since the Iran-Iraq war.

The suspicions that many Middle East observers harbor about the intentions of the MEK, partly due to claims of it being “a cult built around” two leaders, fail to square with the latest facts. On the contrary, the MEK has probably not received credit where credit is due: for its renunciation in 2001 of violence as a means of regime change in Tehran, in addition to its commitment to a policy of peaceful coexistence and a non-nuclear Iran.


• 4,158 - Resettled MEK refugees in Albania

• 20 Years in displacement in Camp Ashraf, Iraq

• 3,200+ - Residents in Camp Ashraf before transfer

• 52 - Deaths in Sept. 1, 2013, attack on Camp Ashraf

For a variety of reasons, the vicissitudes of the MEK — from its role in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) to the UNHCR-assisted resettlement of its members in Albania — have been one of the Middle East’s most underreported stories. Even now, little information can be gleaned from open sources about the status of the resettled MEK members.

In a rare media interview, one resettled MEK official told Deutsche Welle: “If the Iranian secret services discover I am in Albania, my life as well as the lives of my friends and family in Iraq will be in jeopardy.”

The German news website said the man used an alias among other security precautions, adding that its reporters were not allowed to take any photos of the residential quarters.

The secretiveness is not unwarranted: Europe-based Iranian dissidents continue to be in the crosshairs of an intelligence ministry whose tentacles extend across the Middle East and beyond.

Last year Albania expelled two Iranian diplomats, including the ambassador, presumably in connection with alleged plans to assassinate exiled Iranian dissidents in Europe.

Suspected terror plots linked to the Quds Force, an affiliate of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have also been disrupted in France, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Germany, Kenya, Turkey and Bahrain.

Believed to have been founded around 1965, the MEK fused Islamic and Marxist ideas in its opposition to the rule of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The first members were mostly young intellectuals and academics who differed from the conservative clerics’ view that the struggle in Iran was essentially between atheism and Islam. They viewed the political struggle as one between an autocratic regime and an oppressed population comprising different faiths and ethnicities.

Soon after the fall of the shah in 1979, the MEK, under the leadership of Massoud Rajavi, developed differences with the government dominated by the followers of the populist cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rajavi and other MEK members, who commanded the support of Iranian socialist and Kurdish political parties, were prevented from running for office for failing to endorse the “constitution of the Islamic Republic.”

An untold number of MEK activists fled to neighboring Iraq as Khomeini consolidated power, purged opponents and swept away the institutions of the ancien regime.

In 1981, Khomeini sacked Abolhassan Banisadr as president and launched a fresh wave of arrests and executions. Rajavi and Banisadr made a dramatic escape from a Tehran air base to Paris, where they set up the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) “with the intent to replace the Khomeini regime with the ‘Democratic Islamic Republic.’”

In 1983 the NCRI, controversially but not surprisingly, sided with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and three years later, amid attempts by Iran to have MEK members expelled from Paris, Rajavi relocated to Iraq to set up a base near the Iranian border.

From then on, Camp Ashraf, in the Diyala governorate, served as a sanctuary for thousands of members and sympathizers of MEK.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam, occupying US forces disarmed the residents of Camp Ashraf and signed a formal agreement that promised them the status of “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which outlines the rules for protecting civilians in times of war.

MEK leader Maryam Rajavi joins a ceremony honoring 36 victims of an attack on Camp Ashraf in Iraq. (Supplied photo)

But those pledges came up short when Iraqi security forces and local proxies of the IRGC, driven by old grudges, began to launch violent attacks that inflicted severe casualties and exposed the vulnerability of Camp Ashraf in the post-Saddam era.

Some camp residents later claimed they were also subjected to psychological abuse, such as denial of essential supplies and medical treatment for the seriously ill, and exposure to high noise levels from loudspeakers.

US officials decided to begin transferring MEK families to a new location in Baghdad: Camp Liberty, which had earlier served as a US base. However, the violence directed at the MEK failed to subside, with Camp Liberty arrivals proving an easier target for Iran-backed groups such as the Badr Brigade.

Following an attack in February 2012 that claimed nine more lives, the US invited the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to find a safe third country for resettling MEK members and their families.

According to reports, the only country that agreed to take in most of the Camp Liberty residents was Albania, with Germany absorbing the remaining 10 percent. The same year, Washington removed the MEK from its list of designated terrorist organizations.

In September 2013, Maryam Rajavi, who has led the MEK since the mysterious disappearance of her husband, Massoud, in 2003, announced the deaths of 52 refugees in a single attack on Camp Ashraf.

“The tragic events were a somber reminder of the need to conclude the final phase of the relocation process without further delay,” Gyorgy Busztin, acting UN envoy to Iraq, said. The same year, an official agreement was reached on the resettlement of 3,000 Iranian political refugees in Albania.

After the 2013 parliamentary elections in Albania, the resettled Iranians became a domestic political issue, with the new government seeing their presence as an irritant in relations with Iran.

Nevertheless, the resettlement operation is regarded by the UNHCR as one of the most successful humanitarian transfers in recent history.

It continued well into 2017, with the relocation of 2,195 Camp Liberty residents in 2016 and another 1,963 in 2017, resulting in a total of 4,158 resettled Iranian refugees, according to the Albanian Authority for Statistics (the numbers remain disputed).

For its part, the Iranian regime, wary perhaps of a future challenge from the MEK, has continued its undeclared campaign of attacks and intimidation. Some in the inner circle of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei possibly fear retribution at the hands of MEK members resettled in Albania in the event of a regime collapse.

Whatever the rationale behind the apparent paranoia, as an Iranian opposition group whose members are arguably more dedicated than those of other organizations, the MEK may yet have a role in the country’s political future.


US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

Updated 32 min 44 sec ago

US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

WASHINGTON: About four years before the Beirut port explosion that killed dozens of people and injured thousands, a US government contractor expressed concern to a Lebanese port official about unsafe storage there of the volatile chemicals that fueled last week’s devastating blast, American officials said Tuesday.
There is no indication the contractor communicated his concerns to anyone in the US government.
His assessment was noted briefly in a four-page State Department cable first reported by The New York Times.
The cable, labeled sensitive but unclassified, dealt largely with the Lebanese responses to the blast and the origins and disposition of the ammonium nitrate, which ignited to create an enormous explosion. But it also noted that after the Aug. 4 explosion, a person who had advised the Lebanese navy under a US Army contract from 2013 to 2016 told the State Department that he had “conducted a port facility inspection on security measures during which he reported to port officials on the unsafe storage of ammonium nitrate.”
Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast, officials said.
The contractor, who was not identified by name and is now a State Department employee based in Ukraine, was in Lebanon to provide instruction to members of the Lebanese navy. While there, he made a brief, impromptu inspection of physical security at the facility in 2015 or 2016 at the request of a port official, US officials said. The contractor was not identified.
The contractor, who has a background in port and maritime security, noted weaknesses in security camera coverage and other aspects of port management but was not assessing safety issues, according to the US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of a planned public statement.
While inside the warehouse where ammonium nitrate was stored, the contractor saw problems such as poor ventilation and inadequate physical security, which he noted to the port official accompanying him, the officials said. It is unclear whether the port official reported this concern to his superiors.
The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials. The catastrophic explosion one week ago Tuesday killed at least 171 peoples and plunged Lebanon into a deeper political crisis.
The contractor was working for the US Army’s Security Assistance Training Management Organization, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He provided instruction to members of the Lebanese armed forces in naval vessel traffic systems and small boat operations. His class was visiting the Beirut port as part of that instruction program when the port official asked him for the inspection, which US officials said lasted about 45 minutes.
The United States has a close security relationship with Lebanon. According to the State Department, the US government has provided Lebanon with more than $1.7 billion in security assistance since 2006. The assistance is designed to support the Lebanese armed forces’ ability to secure the country’s borders, counter internal threats, and defend national territory.
Last September a US Navy ship, the guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage, visited Beirut. It was the first time in 36 years an American warship had made a port visit there, according to the US military at the time.