MANZA, ALBANIA – In a gleaming compound built from scratch on an Albanian hillside, thousands of Iranians dedicate their waking hours to toppling the regime in Tehran 3,000 kilometers away.
They believe the end of their exile is near.
“I think this year will be very decisive,” said Zohreh Akhiani, the 56-year-old mayor of Ashraf 3, a miniature city of 2,800 exiled Iranians from the opposition movement the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
The dissidents hope an onslaught of crises in their homeland will aid their cause, from increasingly harsh U.S. sanctions to recent anti-government protests and the new coronavirus, which has infected top officials.
In January, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei lambasted Albania as a “truly evil and vicious European country” for hosting “traitors.”
But the dissidents don’t plan to stay long anyway.
“We have established friendly relations with Albania and its people,” said Mohammad Mohadessin, an official in the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella opposition group that includes the PMOI.
“But our wish, and also our assessment, is that we will soon return.”
Even if toppling Tehran is an uphill battle, unrelenting optimism fuels work in the central Albanian compound, the entrance of which is marked by a triumphal arch and metal gates.
“Victory is ours! The future is ours” is inscribed on the arch’s pillars.
The PMOI settled in their unlikely home in Albania, a poor Balkan state, under a U.N. and U.S.-backed deal in 2013 after their camp in Iraq was bombed.
On farmland outside the capital, Tirana, the group has built a sprawling complex with remarkable speed. The undisclosed cost of construction was funded by the diaspora and members themselves, the group said.
Ashraf 3 is a world unto itself, with residential homes, a sports hall, health clinics, shops and a large museum focused on scenes of alleged Iranian torture tactics.
Some hallmarks of normal life are missing, however.
Children are barred because “resistance fighters” must devote their energy to the struggle, a rule that has fed PMOI’s reputation as cultish.
Men and women mingle in work and daily activities but sleep in separate quarters.
“For the freedom of our people, for the difficult struggle we had all these years, naturally we have to suspend our personal lives,” explained Akhiani, who has a daughter in Sweden.
The only reminder that the compound is on Albanian soil are the local gardeners who keep the grounds tidy.
Daily work is focused on supporting “internal resistance” led by dissidents in Iran, residents say.
In a press room, around 20 people scour the web and contact sources on the ground who provide information about alleged abuses by the regime.
They say this is vital because Iranian media censorship is extreme and the internet was cut during violent protests against the government in November.
“All the crimes of the regime, we denounce them. For every crime it commits, we try to expose it,” said Damona Taavoni, 39, who gave up a “good life” in Sweden to work in the compound.
She cited a voice message from a Iranian prisoner who said the coronavirus has been spreading inside the jail.
“We broadcast his voice, we turned it into a video,” Taavoni explained.
Morale is also kept up by poets, artists and musicians who produce anti-regime anthems.
“It’s the art of resistance,” said Rouzbeh Emadzadeh, a musician working in a professional studio on the compound. “We’re not bombers like the Tehran regime accuses us of being.”
Founded in 1965 to overthrow the shah’s government and then the Islamic Republic, the members of PMOI are considered “terrorists” by Tehran.
The group was outlawed in 1981 after authorities accused it of a bomb attack that killed 74 people, including Ayatollah Beheshti, the regime’s No. 2 at the time.
The PMOI never claimed responsibility for the attack, though it has claimed others.
The group flatly rejects the “terrorist” label, which the EU and U.S. have dropped in recent years.
Tirana’s decision to harbor the dissidents, which it says is a humanitarian mission in line with the Albanian tradition of hospitality, has led to fears of possible revenge attacks from Iran.
Albania recently expelled several Iranian diplomats and last year it claimed to have thwarted a Tehran-backed plot to attack the PMOI.