The election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s next president doesn’t appear to demonstrate any meaningful change for a regime that has continued to fail to respect human rights, Taulant Balla, Albanian Member of Parliament and General Secretary of the incumbent Socialist Party told Al Arabiya English on Sunday.
Ultraconservative cleric Raisi won Iran’s presidential election last month with 61.95 percent of the votes in an election that saw the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic. Experts and policymakers have already commented that the election represents a move towards extremism for Iran.
“At the moment where we are, our relationship is at its lowest level. And this is due to the fact that we consider the Iranian regime a regime that does not respect the human rights on the same points and the same evaluation with our partners. Although that there is a new elected president in Iran it looks that there is no change,” Balla, speaking of Iran-Albania relations, said.
Raisi’s name is tied to the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners in Iran, at which point he was allegedly the leading member of a group that came to be known as the “death committee,” a group of Iranian judiciary and intelligence officials put together by then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini to oversee the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners at the time.
“Take into consideration that the elected president is part of those Iranian officials considered by United States to have to have done crimes, human crimes, some 30 years before. So, I would consider that there is no change on Iranian policy. But from the other side, the international community must continue to exercise pressure,” Balla explained.
Balla noted that the international community needs to push to increase its observation of the Iranian regime’s nuclear program. Talks are currently ongoing in Vienna between the United States and Iran on reviving the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal.
Albania’s hosting of MEK a social program
Albania has played host to Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group, since 2013. In that time Iran has allegedly sought to target MEK in the country, using paramilitary networks to plan attacks against members of the group in the country.
“The accommodation of the mujahedeen in Albania is part of what I’d call a social program, because their lives have been threatened and Albania has strongly cooperated with our allies, United States and the European Union, to host them in Albania. And this is kind of a part of our tradition that we take care for those whose life is at risk,” Balla said.
“I feel very proud with what Albania has done regarding hosting the so-called, and it is true, the Iranian opposition. But on my own, our point of view, this is a social protection,” he added.
In January 2020, Albania declared two Iranian diplomats persona non grata, expelling them from the country as they posed “a serious threat” to Albania. Local reports at the time noted that both diplomats were in direct contact with Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani, who had been recently killed in a US airstrike near Baghdad International Airport.
“This was a decision taken under the Vienna Convention as the Iranian diplomats did not respect their diplomatic mandates and they went beyond it. And this was a tough decision, but it had to be taken,” Balla commented.
Albania building relations with the Gulf
Albania has sought to develop ties to the Arabian Gulf states in recent years, with a slew of high-level talks and investment deals taking place.
“Albania is developing very strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and with the UAE … We develop very, very strong relations on an economic level. We're very proud to confirm that Emaar Group, [the UAE’s] biggest construction company is now planning to have a big investment in the Durres port, which I would love to see one similar to the Dubai port,” Balla said.
He also personally thanked UAE crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed for the assistance the country lent Albania after a powerful earthquake shook the country’s capital of Tirana in 2019.
In regard to Saudi Arabia, Balla said that cooperation had increased “at the highest level,” adding that he personally hopes that the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits Tirana “in the near future.”
“We consider the relationship with these very strong allies in this part of the of the world as very crucial, because there are a lot of investments that can come,” Balla explained.
These relationships have also spread into developing Albania’s tourism sector, a significant economic sector for the country.
“I'm very glad to tell you that the number of the tourists that are coming from both Saudi and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are increasing. There are direct flights from Dubai every day to Tirana and also three times per week, but I hope is going to be every day, from Riyadh as well,” Balla said.
Anti-Semitism law a legacy of Second World War
In October last year, the Albanian parliament voted to approve the definition of anti-Semitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The language in the bill defines hate speech and other acts that are discriminatory against Jewish people.
Balla, a supporter of the bill, said that he was “very proud” to have been the member of parliament that brought the bill forward.
“This is a confirmation of Albania's very long-standing ally of those, as I said in the very first questions, those who are in risk and we have all to understand that [anti-Semitism] is a threat to the whole of humanity,” he said.
“Albania is a country where the biggest religious community are Muslims. And [the passing of the anti-Semitism bill] is a sign of Albania's very strong traditional friendship and being a host of those who are all those who have been part of genocides like the Jewish people suffered during the Second World War,” Balla concluded.