Why is this Iranian regime change cult building a base … in Albania?
In early September, Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati travelled to Israel to participate in a counterterrorism summit and some nauseating photo ops with an Israeli cast of characters, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Bushati joked around a bit before getting down to terror-fighting and other business.
Delisted as a terrorist organisation in 2012 by the United States - another entity well-versed in the art of terror disguised as counterterror - the MEK is almost comprehensively reviled within Iran
Israel, of course, has already conspicuously advertised the hypocrisy of its self-appointment to the counterterrorist vanguard by, inter alia, regularly terrorising Palestinians. Albania's counterterrorism credentials, while less well-known, are also pretty dubious: the Balkan nation currently hosts the headquarters of the Iranian terrorist cult known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, dedicated to violent regime change in Iran.
Delisted as a terrorist organisation in 2012 by the United States - another entity well-versed in the art of terror disguised as counterterror - the MEK is almost comprehensively reviled within Iran on account of its history of allying with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, as well as numerous other attacks and assassinations on Iranian soil.
The group’s near-total marginalisation notwithstanding, their regime change message is most welcome in Washington - and indeed was so even before the terror delisting.
Honouring Bush and Trump
Between 2013 and 2016, at the behest of the US, several thousand MEK members were relocated from their former base in Iraq to Albania. Now, the MEK presides over a sprawling, heavily fortified camp not far from the Albanian capital of Tirana.
But why Albania? Simply put, it’s not that difficult for the global superpower to twist the arm of a small and often overlooked country that was, until the 1990s, isolated on the world stage, and that is now eager to make up for lost time by ingratiating itself with empire.
For proof of eagerness, one need look no further than Tirana’s George W Bush Street (which I myself have had the dubious honour of visiting), the George W Bush statue in the village of Fushe-Kruje, or the Hillary Clinton statue in Sarande.
The city of Kamez boasts a boulevard named after US President Donald Trump, who has also been named an honorary citizen - a totally logical move in a Muslim-majority country vis-a-vis a Muslim-banning US president.
In the past, Albania also contributed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as to America’s extraordinary rendition schemes, and was described as a “dumping ground” for victims released from the US offshore penal colony known as Guantanamo Bay.
In short, it’s not enormously shocking that Albania has offered itself up as the MEK’s permanent address - particularly given the MEK’s special place in the cold heart of the powerful US-Israeli-Saudi axis, the final component of which is rumoured to be providing the group with copious funds.
And with the advent of the Trump administration, it seems the MEK is getting a new lease on life. In a September report for Channel 4 News, international editor Lindsey Hilsum and her crew paid a visit to the rapidly expanding MEK camp outside Tirana, where they were immediately intercepted by security guards, accused of being Iranian government spies and terrorists, and forcibly prevented from filming.
[Bolton] appeared at a pro-MEK function in Albania last year with the wildly applauded opinion that 'the declared policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran'
Hilsum noted that, while various US politicians have long been MEK supporters - unsurprisingly, given the MEK’s penchant for hurling obscene amounts of money at people - "now, for the first time, they can effectively provide a hotline to the Oval Office".
The video report provides relevant footage of Trump-men at previous MEK rallies - among them John "Bomb Iran" Bolton, who prior to assuming the post of national security adviser, appeared at a pro-MEK function in Albania last year with the wildly applauded opinion that “the declared policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran”.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, another famous collector of MEK payments, is also known for extolling the MEK as the "the vision for the future of Iran" and hollering that "the mullahs must go, the ayatollah must go, and they must be replaced by a democratic government which [MEK leader Maryam] Rajavi represents".
Twitter troll factory
Leaving aside the minor issue that no government can be democratic in Iran if the Iranian people don’t support it, the group’s documented traditions of imprisoning, torturing, and otherwise abusing members who veer from the MEK-dictated path would seem to indicate that democracy is not exactly the name of the game.
The MEK’s policy of mandatory celibacy also raises the question of what sort of “vision for the future” is logistically possible when people can’t, you know, reproduce. An MEK defector interviewed by Hilsum in Albania told her of a certain routine, according to which members of the organisation were required to write down any remotely sexual thoughts that dared to enter their minds during the day - and to then publicly confess them to colleagues and commanders.
This same man confirmed his service in the camp as a “keyboard warrior”, posting fake content on Twitter to exaggerate Rajavi’s and the MEK’s popularity and power.
Later in September, the UK's Independent published its own investigation into the MEK - the “darling of Washington” that has “created a state within a state in Albania” - also addressing the group’s generally repressive nature and the existence in the camp of what amounts to a Twitter troll factory.
Al Jazeera, meanwhile, took an in-depth look at the expansive “troll farm” facility that has enabled the MEK to engage in “social media manipulation on an industrial scale”. Obviously, the wild proliferation of fake accounts committed to demonising the Iranian government serves not only to warp beyond recognition the reality on the ground in Iran, but also to ultimately justify whatever form of “democracy” the US feels should be violently installed there.
In typically professional fashion, the MEK accused Channel 4 and Al Jazeera of being "mullah-linked journos" operating undercover and conspiring with the Iranian regime to attack the "Iranian resistance group".
Not everyone, however, has been persona non grata at MEK headquarters; see, for example, a September article in the Washington Times in which one L Todd Wood - a former US military pilot-turned-Wall Street bond trader - gushes over his invitation to meet the "Iranian freedom fighters" at their current residence.
The MEK, he reports, "have given their lives for an idea: a free Iran. Each and every one of them spoke about their people, and how they wanted a better life for the Iranian population".
Funny, then, that out of all of the Iranians I've personally spoken to in Iran proper - even those who vehemently denounce the current government - I’ve never once heard the suggestion that life may somehow be better under a terrorist cult.
As the MEK's pernicious rhetoric gets endorsed and amplified by thousands of Twitter bots - in addition to US officials - the dissemination of truth has apparently become the jurisdiction of "Iranian agents" and "mullah-linked journos".
In that case, we're going to need all the Iranian agents we can get.
- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: MEK leader Maryam Rajavi is pictured at a speaking engagement near Paris on 3 August 2013 (AFP)
“The MEK’s policy of mandatory celibacy also raises the question of what sort of “vision for the future” is logistically possible when people can’t, you know, reproduce.”