Iranian opposition group has few friends following Albanian police raid
In May 2022, Mike Pompeo, who had until just the year before been US secretary of state, addressed a meeting of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the umbrella organisation largely seen as a front for the Iranian opposition group People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK).
Speaking in front of thousands of MEK supporters, the man who had arguably been the world's most powerful diplomat hailed the group's leader Maryam Rajavi as "president-elect" of Iran.
"Under her leadership, the National Council of Resistance of Iran is laying the groundwork for a free, sovereign and democratic republic in Iran," Pompeo said. "We must continue to support the Iranian people as they fight for a freer and more democratic Iran in any way we can."
Just over a year later, the group's fortunes appear to have nosedived.
On Tuesday morning, Albanian counter-terrorism police raided the MEK's base, which has been in the west of the Balkan country since it moved out of Iraq in 2003.
According to the group, an MEK member named Ali Mostashari was killed as police moved to seize devices and equipment belonging to the group.
Albanian police denied any responsibility for the death and said they were enforcing a court order that came after the country's interior ministry accused the MEK of refusing to abide by a 2014 agreement allowing them to remain in the country "for humanitarian purposes alone".
“Unfortunately, this group has not adhered to these commitments, breaching the agreement,” said the ministry in a statement, saying the MEK had engaged in "political" activity while in Albania.
Although police did not elaborate on the reasons for the raid, local media reported that the group was suspected of orchestrating cyberattacks against foreign institutions. They also said one man had died of a suspected cardiac arrest during the raid.
The raid, which the NCRI said came at the "behest" of the Iranian government, comes just days after a planned rally by the group was banned for the first time in Paris as a result of what French police said was a likelihood to "generate disturbances to public order" as well as the risk of terror attacks.
The MEK's fortunes have fluctuated since its founding in 1965. Originally espousing an unorthodox mix of Islamism and Marxism, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution - which the group supported - it eventually became a sworn enemy of the Islamic Republic.
During the 1980s, it conducted a series of deadly bombing campaigns aimed at destabilising the nascent state and threw its weight behind Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. In retaliation, the Islamic Republic executed thousands of the opposition group's members.
Between 1997 and 2012, the MEK was classified as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department, but its help in providing evidence of Iran's nuclear ambitions and its ability to mobilise large numbers of heavily disciplined supporters allowed the group to become arguably the most visible opposition organisation in the diaspora.
As much as opponents of the Islamic Republic have lauded the group, its uncompromising stance - combined with accusations of brainwashing and cult-like behaviour among members - has made the MEK an unreliable ally, something not helped by the general consensus that the group has little to no support inside Iran.
It was no surprise therefore that its activities - which include massive online troll farms and harassment campaigns against politicians and campaigners seen as not being sufficiently against the Islamic Republic - might eventually provoke a backlash.
"The MEK have always been a state within a state for the countries that harbour them, and even if they function as a spy network of sorts for the United States, I think at a certain point the amount of clandestine wheeling and dealing that they do from this secretive compound has become more work to deal with than it is worth, especially when it's Albania that has had to be the proxy to give them safe harbour all these years," Seamus Malekafzali, an Iranian-American freelance journalist who writes on Middle East issues, told MEE.
Following the raid, the US State Department issued a statement in which it said it backed the Albanian police's actions and said that it "doesn't see MEK as a viable democratic opposition movement that is representative of Iranian people", adding that it continued to have "serious concerns about MEK as an organisation, including allegations of abuse committed against its own members".
Although relations between the US and MEK have never been overt, previous American administrations have rarely been so frank in their assessment of the group.
It is also unlikely, said Malekafzali, to be a coincidence that the MEK's ailing fortunes have come in the wake of a thawing of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which for many years had been accused of providing support to the group.
"My intuition is that the Saudi-Iran rapprochement is what really sealed the deal here," he said.
"The signal that was given off after the failure of the Mahsa Amini protests and now this huge diplomatic breakthrough is that the Islamic Republic will be around for a while yet."
Middle East Eye contacted the US State Department for comment, but had received no response at time of publication.
MEE also contacted the MEK and NCRI for comment, but also received no response.