Iran’s foreign ministry on Thursday condemned Albania’s decision to expel two Iranian diplomats, reportedly in connection with a plot to attack a soccer match featuring the Israeli national team, and said it was based on “fabricated intelligence” and made under US pressure.
“This unjustifiable behavior of the Albanian government… is completely based on false and fabricated intelligence and is unacceptable and condemned,” it said in a statement.
Albania said Wednesday it had expelled the diplomats for security reasons, with US officials identifying one as the ambassador and saying the pair had plotted terror attacks in the Balkan country.
The diplomats were suspected of “involvement in activities that harm the country’s security,” Albania’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Edlira Prendi told reporters.
She said the decision was taken in consultation with other countries, including Israel.
Private Top Channel television said the Iranians are suspected of illegal activities related to a World Cup qualification soccer match between Albania and Israel two years ago.
About 20 people were arrested in Albania and Kosovo following that match, which was threatened with an alleged terrorist attack.
Albanian officials would not confirm that report.
The planned attack in November 2016 was said to have been coordinated by two Albanians in Syria fighting with the Islamic State terror group.
The World Cup qualifier was originally due to take place in the northern town of Shkodra. The match eventually took place in Elbasan, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the Albanian capital Tirana, under a massive security presence.
It’s unclear what connection Iran, which is traditionally seen as an enemy of the Islamic State, may have had to the attack plot.
In May, a Kosovo court sentenced eight Albanians to jail over the foiled attack and fined another. Police found explosive devices, weapons, electronic equipment, and extremist religious literature at their homes.
In August 2017, the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria said it had killed a plotter of the thwarted soccer game attack.
There has been no comment from Israeli officials.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the expulsion of the Iranian diplomats in a statement and US National Security Adviser John Bolton expressed his support in a tweet.
The Iranian foreign ministry said their support was proof of US and Israeli efforts to “harm and disrupt Iran’s foreign relations, specially with Europe.”
“This scenario was carried out under the pressure of the United States government and the security service of the Zionist regime,” it said.
The move had come “at a time that cooperation between Iran and Europe for bypassing unilateral and illegal US sanctions has become ever more serious.”
European countries have been working to set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to help Iran gain the economic benefits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
The SPV follows US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in May and reimposition of sanctions lifted in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities.