Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Iran Seriously Misjudged Things when it Attacked Albania

Leaders are defined by how they handle a national crisis. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s remarkable actions during these past 12 months are proving this to be true in Ukraine. Prime Minister Edi Rama further proved this in his response to Iran’s cyberattack on Albania in July of last year.

Since becoming prime minister in 2013, Rama has worked hard to modernize Albania. Until the late 1990s, the country was under communist rule. Like all European countries subjected to communism during the 20th century, the government bureaucracy was dependent on paper and moved at the speed of a startled snail. For Albanians, a simple act like obtaining a driver’s license could take months. Property transactions could take years.

An artist by academic training, Rama has the ability to visualize what he wants to achieve even before he takes the first stroke of action. Having participated in calls between Rama and senior American officials, I have personally witnessed his ability to analyze and dissect complex issues.

Under Rama, the government has embraced electronic governance. His best move was appointing Dr. Mirlinda Karcanaj to lead Albania’s National Agency of Information Security (NAIS).

With Rama providing top cover, Karcanaj moved to create a digital infrastructure and modernize how Albania’s government works. In 2011, Albania was rated 101st in the United Nations e-Participation Index. In 2022, it was 36th with ninety-five percent of all Albanian government operations being conducted digitally.

The result was a significant boost to the quality of life for Albanians. Foreign businesses and governments were encouraged to work with Albania, producing further enhancements, opportunities, and encouragement for the population.

Meanwhile, Rama inherited two highly merited initiatives from his predecessor, Sali Berisha. The first was NATO membership. The second was an agreement with the United Nations and the U.S. State Department to allow approximately 2,500 Iranian dissidents associated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran into Albania who had been residing in Iraq. While inside Iraq, they were subjected to harassment and attacks by Iranian loyalists.

Albanians are proud of their legacy of providing sanctuary for groups that have been persecuted. More Jewish people lived in Albania when the Holocaust ended than before Adolph Hitler’s rise to power.

Subsequently, Iranian intelligence commenced using its Tirana-based embassy as a headquarters for monitoring, harassing, and organizing attacks on the dissidents. The problem became so blatant that Rama was forced to expel two Iranian diplomats on suspicion of being spies. This follows the decision by Rama to expel the Iranian ambassador in 2018, following pressure from both Israel and the United States.

In 2022, Iran launched a debilitating cyberattack on Albania which took much of the government offline. Conceivably, the objective was to collapse the Rama government, knock Albania back to the Stone Age, steal state secrets, and turn the Albanian people against the government. It’s not beyond the pale to imagine that Tehran was still furious with Albania following the decision to give sanctuary to Iranian dissidents and the move to kick several high-ranking diplomats out of the country.

At the time, Albania took a tough hit. However, probably to Tehran’s dismay, whatever it hoped to achieve failed. The Rama government is still firmly in place; its network is back up and running; minimal critical intelligence was stolen; Albanians did not turn against the Iranian dissidents; and Albanians received a first-hand example of Iran’s belligerence and why many Iranian dissidents living throughout Europe fear for their lives.

Blows that do not break the back strengthen it. With the support of the U.S. government and Microsoft, Albania has taken steps to strengthen its network. As a member of NATO, Albania has the available expertise to ensure that another cyberattack doesn’t take down its whole network.

Iran also made another serious miscalculation. In its cyberattack targeting Albania, Iran probably revealed a little too much about its techniques, tactics, and procedures when conducting a cyberattack. These lessons are not going to be lost on Washington, Brussels, or on Israel’s Mossad. Nations around the world recognize that if Iran will attack another country that doesn’t yield to its will, then Iran cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Rama’s response to this attack has elevated his international status. While Rama ultimately chose not to, he could have invoked Article 5 of NATO’s founding document which identifies an attack on one member as an attack on all. Along with land, sea, air, and space, cyber is the new battle domain.

By not invoking Article 5, Rama is showing restraint at a critical time. He chose not to turn this into a coalition fight that could have ramifications throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Rama has rightfully severed diplomatic relations with Iran.

When asked when relations may one day resume, Rama stated “when there is a free Iran.” Here is a leader who has helped lift his own country out of anarchy created by a totalitarian regime. Like citizens of other former communist-ruled countries now within NATO, Rama publicly calls for individual freedom over the opposition. Iran made a seriously flawed calculation when it picked a fight with Prime Minister Rama.