Albania cuts diplomatic ties with Iran, boots out diplomats over July cyberattack

Prime Minister Edi Rama says Iranian embassy staff given 24 hours to leave country; Biden administration backs its NATO ally, calls for Tehran to be held responsible for assault

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama speaks during the Wine Vision fair, part of the 'Open Balkan' economic forum for regional cooperation in Belgrade, Serbia, Sept. 1, 2022. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama speaks during the Wine Vision fair, part of the 'Open Balkan' economic forum for regional cooperation in Belgrade, Serbia, Sept. 1, 2022. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

TIRANA — Albania cut diplomatic ties with Iran and expelled the country’s embassy staff over a major cyberattack nearly two months ago that was allegedly carried out by Tehran on Albanian government websites, the prime minister said Wednesday.

The government’s decision was formally delivered to the Iranian Embassy in Tirana in an official note, Prime Minister Edi Rama said. All embassy staff, including diplomatic and security personnel, were ordered to leave Albania within 24 hours.

On July 15, a cyberattack temporarily shut down numerous Albanian government digital services and websites.

Rama said an investigation determined that the cyberattack wasn’t carried out by individuals or independent groups, calling it a “state aggression.”

“The deep investigation put at our disposal undeniable evidence that the cyberattack against our country was orchestrated and sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran which had involved four groups for the attack on Albania,” Rama said in a video statement.

Ramas said the Iranian attack was a bid to “paralyze public services and hack data and electronic communications from the government systems.”

“The said attack failed its purpose. Damages may be considered minimal compared to the goals of the aggressor. All systems came back fully operational and there was no irreversible wiping of data,” Rama added.

The Biden administration said it supported the move by Albania, which is a NATO ally.

“The United States strongly condemns Iran’s cyberattack,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “We join in Prime Minister Rama’s call for Iran to be held accountable for this unprecedented cyber incident.”

“The United States will take further action to hold Iran accountable for actions that threaten the security of a US ally and set a troubling precedent for cyberspace,” Watson said.

Members of the Ashraf-3 camp wave Iranian flags during the speech of former US Vice President Mike Pence at the Iranian opposition headquarters in Albania, June 23, 2022. (Franc Zhurda/AP)

Albania and Iran have been bitter foes for years, stemming from Tirana’s hosting of the Iranian opposition group the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK) on its soil.

‘Threats and conspiracies’

Albania agreed in 2013 to take in members of the exiled group at the request of Washington and the United Nations, with thousands settling in the Balkan country over the years.

Following the collapse of its communist government in the early 1990s, Albania has transformed into a steadfast ally of the US and the West, with the country officially joining NATO in 2009.

The MEK backed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah but rapidly fell out with the new Islamic authorities and embarked on a decades-long campaign to overthrow the regime.

The MEK regularly hosts summits in Albania that have long attracted support from conservative US Republicans, including former vice president Mike Pence who delivered a keynote address at an event in June.

A month later, the group postponed another summit citing unspecified security threats targeting the event.

The summit was called off “upon recommendations by the Albanian government, for security reasons, and due to terrorist threats and conspiracies,” the MEK said in a statement released in late July.

The gathering was supposed to be attended by or joined online by various high-profile political delegations, including hundreds of lawmakers from six continents, organizers said.

Former US Vice President Mike Pence pauses during his speech at the Iranian opposition headquarters in Albania, where up to 3,000 MEK members reside at Ashraf-3 camp in Manza town, about 30 kilometers (16 miles) west of Tirana, Albania, June 23, 2022. (Franc Zhurda/AP)

Iranian opposition groups in exile have accused Tehran of targeting their events and personnel for years.

In 2018, Belgian police thwarted a terrorist attack that was supposed to target an Iranian opposition rally outside Paris, after which an Iranian diplomat was convicted for supplying explosives for the plot.

Albania has expelled a string of Iranian diplomats from the Balkan country over the years, including Tehran’s ambassador to the country in December 2018.

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