Albania's leaders have responded angrily to an implicit accusation by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that their country is "a small and sinister country," which was instrumental in a Western plot to effect violent unrest and "foment war" in Iran.
The Iranian allegation reportedly came during a televised address on January 8 eulogizing slain Major General Qasem Soleimani and condemning the U.S. air strike last week that killed Soleimani and a senior Iran-backed Iraqi militia leader, along with several others at Baghdad's international airport.
The Iranian leader did not mention Albania specifically, but reportedly referred to a meeting that included "an American and a number of Iranians" in the "days before" unrest that swept Iran after gas rationing was imposed in November, according to the remarks, which were quoted by a French-based group with ties to Iranian exiles critical of Tehran's government.
It was a possible reference to a meeting at a compound in Albania that houses the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), an Iranian exile group that Tehran regards as terrorists.
Khamenei's own website makes no mention of the accusation in an account of the speech posted on January 8.
But President Ilir Meta issued a statement on January 8 countering that "Albania is not an evil country, but a democratic country that has suffered from an evil dictatorship...and therefore considers human rights sacred."
Albanians fell under fascist Italian and Nazi German protectorates before spending decades after World War II under oppressive communist rule until the early 1990s. Their country joined NATO in 2009.
Meta added that Tirana "remains firm in its commitments alongside the U.S. and NATO countries in the fight against international terrorism and any act that endangers world stability and peace."
Prime Minister Edi Rama said he was "not surprised" by Khamenei's comments and noted in a reference to the MEK relocation that Tirana had taken "an action that honors Albania and is part of the strategic alliance with the U.S., and open[ed] the doors to a group of people whose lives were in danger."
U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the drone strike on Soleimani following more than a year of rising tensions with Iran and amid reports of attacks in Iraq by Iran-backed militias that included an assault on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.
The Baghdad airport attack has sparked outrage from Iranian and Iraqi officials and pledges by Tehran to retaliate, as well as statements from governments around the world warning of the risks to all sides of escalation.
The MEK is a secretive and socially isolated group that Iran and Iraq call terrorists, but Western governments and the United Nations have sought to protect them with their relocation from Iraqi exile six years ago.
Tirana's government agreed to U.S. and UN requests in 2013 to accept around 3,000 disarmed MEK members who were being relocated from a sequestered compound in Iraq dubbed Camp Ashraf.
Once led by the husband and wife team of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, the MEK adherents now live with Maryam Rajavi in a compound in northwestern Albania dubbed Ashraf 3. Masoud Rajavi's whereabouts have been unknown since 2003.
Multiple reports have alleged meddling in the restive Balkans by the Quds Force, a foreign unit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), or other arms of Iranian foreign policy, particularly in places such as Albania where there are majority Muslim populations.
Albanian police announced in October that they had thwarted a 2018 plot involving a "terrorist cell" of Iran's elite Quds Force that was targeting Tehran's perceived enemies at a gathering in Albania that included MEK members.
Tirana said it expelled Iran's ambassador and another diplomat in December 2018 for "damaging its national security" in a move that was applauded in Washington as a further signal "to Iran's leaders that their support for terrorism will not be tolerated."
Washington and Tehran have been engaged in a high-stakes diplomatic and economic standoff since Trump withdrew the United States in 2018 from a multilateral nuclear deal that traded nuclear limitations for sanctions relief.
But the military confrontations had mostly been limited to drone shootdowns or incidents between presumed proxies until the January 3 assassination of Soleimani, head of the Quds Force and one of Iran's most-powerful figures.
Waves of reimposed U.S. sanctions have dealt heavy blows to Iran's economy and its currency.
Iranian social woes boiled over in November with public protests in over 100 Iranian towns and cities that in some cases included calls for an end to the clerical leadership that has ruled Iran for four decades.
Tehran blamed Western saboteurs and "thugs" and officials have acknowledged that its crackdown killed more than 100 protesters (outsiders' estimates of the death toll are higher).
Albanian President Meta called Iran's missile attack on two Iraqi bases that housed U.S. and coalition troops on January 8 "a provocative act with dangerous consequences for the region and its stability."
The MEK was created in the 1960s by Marxist-Islamist urban guerrillas who later participated in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But the group soon turned on Iran's clerical regime and violently opposed it from Iraqi territory during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Its armed resistance from exile included bombings and attacks that killed civilians.
The MEK in Iraq was disarmed and thousands of its members isolated at Camp Ashraf, near the Iranian border in eastern Iraq, as "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions by the U.S.-led coalition after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
It waged what Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as "an extensive campaign aimed at winning support from Western politicians" before the European Union and United States removed their designations of the MEK as a "terrorist organization" in 2009 and 2012, respectively.
An MEK gathering in June reportedly drew notable current and former U.S. officials, including Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has attended other MEK events and described the MEK as a "government in exile."
Giuliani reportedly suggested to attendees at the MEK compound in Albania that foes might "entrust the transition of Iran to a very responsible group of people" after the "overthrow [of] that horrible regime."