The fight will go on: Iranian dissidents set up camp in Albania

MEK 2By Eric J. Lyman

ASHRAF-3, Albania - Iran’s largest opposition group opened the doors of its new home base to the world on Saturday with a wave of praise from political leaders - from both the left and the right -- hailing from nearly 50 different countries and all enthusiastic about the group and its goals.

The not-quite-finished Ashraf-3 community rests on a sprawling plot of land that until 30 months ago was farmland, located around halfway between the Albanian capital of Tirana and the country’s Adriatic coastline. Home to more than 3,000 Iranian dissidents from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, best known as MEK, Ashraf-3 is too new to appear on map programs. Cement was still drying around the base of some flag posts and workers were still painting the handrails on a bridge as more than 350 dignitaries from 47 countries arrived Saturday.

The gathering was the 15th edition of MEK’s “Free Iran” event, but the first to take place at its new Albanian home. Paris hosted the event between 2004 and 2018.

“We look at the fact that so many leaders came to our home so far from where they live as a testament to the international support that exists for MEK and the faith they have in what we want to accomplish,” said Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of the foreign affairs committee for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group that includes the MEK.

The two main themes running through most of the dozens of remarks from speakers Saturday was praise for MEK for building Ashraf-3 and organizing the event, and a desire to see the current regime in Iran toppled.

The latter of those two themes is the central goal of the MEK, though its formal aim is to step into the void a collapsed Iranian government would leave only long enough to hold free elections and the establishment of a secular state.

The plan would see Maryam Rajavi step in as president-elect until elections could be held. Rajavi -- the wife of MEK co-founder Massoud Rajavi, who disappeared in 2003 -- was the star of Saturday’s event. Her remarks were repeatedly interrupted by loud chants of “Iran! Maryam! Freedom!” and “From Ashraf to Tehran we will fight to the end!”

MEK does not formally take sides in internal politics in other countries, and the delegation from the United States included figures from both sides of the political spectrum. But in her opening remarks, Rajavi appeared to endorse U.S. President Donald Trump, who has helped raise MEK’s profile after pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal last year.

Iran’s “calculation is that terrorist operations and the warmongering in the region’s countries will not cost them very much, at least until the next U.S. presidential election,” she said. “They say to themselves: ‘Let’s wait another 16 months and maybe the U.S. will have another president from whom we can extract the same super concessions as we did with the nuclear deal.’”

She said that strategy would fail in the face of MEK’s efforts: “We will never abandon our struggle,” Rajavi said.

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, a legal advisor to Mr. Trump, attended most of the Paris versions of the MEK event. He said he felt “a kind of optimism at Ashraf-3 that [he] never felt in Paris.” Giuliani said support for MEK should be a simple conclusion for those around the world.
“This isn’t a choice between deposing a dictator when we don’t know if an even more terrible leader will take his place,” Giuliani said. “It’s a choice between with one of the most terrible sponsors of terrorism in the world in the current regime in Iran, and we have MEK ready to step in.”

Joe Lieberman, the 2000 vice-presidential candidate and former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman agreed: “You don’t just represent an alternative to the Iranian mullahs,” Lieberman said. “You represent the right alternative.”

MEK was founded in 1965 when several student groups united to oppose the Iranian shah. It has gone through several phases of development since then, including a period between 1997 and 2012 when it was classified as a terror organization by the U.S. government. The group has been linked to assassinations of political figures and scientists in Iran, and it has reportedly misled officials regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But MEK has also repeatedly been targeted by Iranian officials on a massive scale. Ashraf-3 includes a museum that details the torture and deaths of as many as 120,000 MEK supporters during the organization’s history. In 2015, Iran launched a 40-rocket attack against Ashraf-2, MEK’s previous home in Iraq, leaving 24 dead. A car bomb attack on Ashraf-3 last year was foiled before explosives could be detonated.

Despite the risks, sisters Forough and Hejrat Moezzi, aged 30 and 31, respectively, say that Ashraf-3 is the first place that feels like home to them since they left Iran 12 years ago. Both were previously residents of Ashraf-1 and Asraf-2, both in Iraq.

“This is the best place yet because here we feel safe,” Forough said. “I know we will stay here until we can return to our country.”
Hejrat said it was a particular honor for the international dignitaries to come to Ashraf-3. “These are people who have stood behind us for many years,” she said. “It is so wonderful to be able to welcome them to our home.”

Ashraf-3, MEK’s first home outside the Middle East, was built in Albania because the country was one of a small handful to offer refuge to the group. Speaking Saturday, former Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko explained the move was part of the country’s history.

“In 1943, the Nazi’s conquered Albania and had two main demands when an Albanian delegation went to Berlin,” Majko said. “They wanted our gold transferred to Berlin and they wanted a list of all the Jews in Albania. Our answer was simple: the gold, yes; the Jews, no. Protecting those in need is part of our identity.”

The speed with which the heavily-guarded town was built -- complete with parks, conference halls, shopping centers, restaurants, swimming pools, and a luxury hotel -- was enough to make New York’s Giuliani marvel.

“This whole city was built in less than two years,” Giuliani said. “If we tried to do this in New York it would take 15 years and launch 14 corruption investigations.”

Photo: July 13, 2019 - Tirana, Albania - Attendees during MEK’s 15th “Free Iran” event, the first one in Albania.
Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (07/13/19)

Story/photo published date: 07/14/19

A version of this story was published in the The Washington Times.
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