(CNSNews.com) – The State Department on Thursday welcomed the Albanian government’s decision to expel two Iranian “diplomats,” a move underscoring concerns about the Iranian regime’s clandestine efforts to target exiled dissidents in the West.
Albania’s acting foreign minister, Gent Cakaj, earlier announced the expulsion of two men accredited to Iran’s embassy in Tirana, for activities “not in line with their status.”
Ahmad Hosseini Alast, a cultural attaché, and Mohammad Peimanemati, a counselor at the mission, were ordered to leave immediately.
According to local reporting, they were linked respectively to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the ministry of intelligence. Over the past 18 months both entities have been implicated in terror and assassination plots in Europe, targeting exiled opponents of the regime in Tehran.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus on Thursday commended the Albanian government for expelling the two “so-called diplomats.”
“The Iranian regime continues to use its diplomatic facilities in Europe and elsewhere as cover to plot terrorist attacks, as well as to threaten and spy on Iranians living abroad,” she said.
The expulsions came three months after Albanian police announced the exposure of an Iranian “terrorist network,” naming four suspects linked to the Qods Force – the IRGC’s external operations wing, whose commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad early this month.
The cell allegedly planned to target members of the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)/Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) opposition group, including a foiled attack on a Nowruz (Persian new year) event in March 2018.
Albania host several thousand NCRI/MEK members, who were resettled there in 2013-2016 with the help of the U.S. government. They had previously been confined to camps in Iraq, where on a number of occasions they faced deadly attacks from pro-Iranian regime militias.
“More proof of the global terror network Soleimani helped Iran build,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted of the expulsions.
NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi called the move “a courageous and commendable step in combatting terrorism and ensuring the security of the people of Albania and Iranian refugees.”
Iranian diplomatic missions were “epicenters for espionage and terrorism,” Rajavi charged. “Most regime diplomats are either Intelligence Ministry agents or IRGC officers, or have received training on terrorism and espionage to serve that purpose.”
She reiterated NCRI calls for governments to shut down Iranian embassies.
Since mid-2018, alleged Iranian plots to kill dissidents on European soil have been uncovered in France and in Denmark, while the Netherlands early last year blamed the Iranian regime for the earlier murders of two Iranian dissidents in that country. The E.U. a year ago imposed sanctions on Iran in response to the threats.
An Iranian official previously based at the embassy in Vienna remains in custody in Belgium, where is to stand trial with other suspects in connection with an alleged plot to bomb a NCRI gathering in Paris. The targeted event was attended by several prominent American supporters of the NCRI, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Albania itself expelled Iran’s ambassador and another diplomat in December 2018, accusing them of involvement in unspecified illegal activities posing a threat to Albania’s security.
‘Iran’s nefarious activity against the free world’
Amid the tensions around the killing of Soleimani, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a January 8 speech eulogizing the slain terrorist referred to a “small and sinister country in Europe” which he said helps Iran’s enemies.
He did not name Albania, but the government of the former communist country got the message – and responded.
“Albania is not an evil country, but a democratic country that has suffered from an evil dictatorship unparalleled in its kind [and] therefore considers human rights sacred,” President Ilir Meta said in a statement, which also condemned the IRGC’s retaliator firing of missiles at two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops.
“As a country which recognized a while ago Iran’s nefarious activity against the free world, and took clear distance from it, Albania cannot but strongly approve the stance of the U.S. president towards a malicious activist of Tehran’s regime,” Prime Minister Edi Rama said at the time.
“We stand firm with the U.S. and hope everyone does so.”