Leading Iranian Dissident Group Sets Up New ‘Base’ in Albania

Eric J. Lyman, 12 July 2019, Washington Times

TIRANA, Albania — Iran’s largest dissident group will open its new home base to the world Saturday with journalists, supporters and more than 300 international political figures among those expected to visit Ashraf-3 around 30 miles outside the Albanian capital.

The move carries special symbolism as Iran’s Islamist regime in Tehran faces growing problems at home and abroad, as the economy falters, tensions rise with the U.S., and European nations struggling to deliver on promises of trade and investment in the face of harsh new sanctions from the Trump administration.

Work began on the Ashraf-3 complex in 2016, after the dissident group Mujahedin-e Khalq, best known as MEK — the group casts itself as Iran’s main opposition force and the leading voice for a new democratic government in Tehran — was ousted from its previous two homes, first from Camp Ashraf in Iraq and then from Iraq’s Camp Liberty, which residents referred to as Ashraf-2.

Work is ongoing, but Ashraf-3 already resembles a small, heavily guarded city — home to more than 3,000 supporters complete with parks, conference halls, restaurants, and swimming pools.

The Iranian exile group has seen its profile shoot up since President Trump’s election. Mr. Trump took the U.S. out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year and many of his security and foreign policy advisers have ties to the resistance movement.

Among the Americans set to be on hand for Saturday’s event here: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a legal adviser to Mr. Trump; Rep. Lance Gooden, Texas Republican; former vice presidential candidate and Sen. Joe Lieberman; former New Mexico Gov. and U.S. energy secretary Bill Richardson; and retired senior Gens. James Conway, George Casey and David Phillips.

Other leading figures on the guest list include former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, and Sid Ahmed Ghozali, a former prime minister of Algeria.

MEK has hosted similar events in the past — from 2004 to 2018 the events took place in Paris — but organizers say this year’s gathering is particularly significant because it is the first time the event will take place in MEK’s own facilities. Ashraf-3 is expected to host the annual gatherings of supporters going forward.

“It is very important that so many dignitaries from both sides of the Atlantic and from around the Middle East and other parts of the world will come to show support for the work MEK is doing,” said Ali Safavi, a member of MEK’s Foreign Affairs Committee and president of Near-East Policy Research, a policy consultancy. “We want to show our strength as the world loses patience with the current regime in Iran.”

MEK was founded more than 50 years ago 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.

Though the Obama administration gave MEK $20 million to help finance the move from Camp Liberty in Iraq to the organization’s new home in Albania, the U.S. has increasingly embraced MEK since Mr. Trump took office in 2017. In a television interview from Albania Thursday, Mr. Giuliani called the new facility in Albania “the new epicenter of Iranian resistance.”

According to Andrea Dessi, a researcher specializing in the Middle East and conflict resolution with Italy’s Institute for International Affairs, a think tank, MEK is emerging as a key part of the White House’s Iranstrategy.

“Under President Trump, the U.S. is looking for ways to increase pressure on Iran any way it can, and the support for MEK is a high-visibility part of that equation,” Mr. Dessi said. “MEK sees itself as an alternative to the current government in Iran, which sees MEKas a big problem.”

Saturday’s meeting comes amid dramatically heightened tensions between Iran and the West. Last month, Iranian forces shot down an American surveillance drone — Iran said the drone was in its air space at the time — and President Trump approved a retaliatory strike against Iran before pulling back at the last moment.

This week, the United Kingdom claimed Iranian naval vessels tried to block a British tanker passing near Iranian waters in the Strait of Hormuz in apparent response to British Royal marines’ seizure a different tanker suspected of carrying Iranian oil to Syria in defiance of sanctions against that country. The Iranian ships in the Strait of Hormuz only backed away after a Royal Navy warship approached.

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