U.S. Seeks To Seize Buildings Tied To Iran

The U.S. government has asked a federal judge to allow it to seize four mosques and a Manhattan skyscraper that are owned by a nonprofit group. The government says the group is a front for the Iranian government, which has been under economic sanctions for decades.

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The U.S. government has moved to seize control of a skyscraper. The skyscraper is in Manhattan, and its owned by businesses long-suspected of being fronts for the government of Iranian. Youll recall the U.S. has economic sanctions against Iran. The government has also moved to seize a number of bank accounts in the United States and four mosques. The total value of these assets could be as much as half a billion dollars. NPRs Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER: The two Iranian businesses under suspicion are the Alavi Foundation and the Assa Corporation. Together, they own the skyscraper at 650 5th Avenue. It was built by the government of the shah of Iran in the 1970s and passed into the control of the current government of Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The foundation owns 60 percent of the building, and the Assa Corporation owns the rest.

The U.S. government initiated the action to seize the building nearly a year ago in a civil complaint that focused mainly on the Assa Corporation. Shortly after that, the president of the Alavi Foundation was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying documents connected to the case. Now, in an amended complaint, the U.S. is seeking complete forfeiture of the skyscraper plus four mosques in New York, Maryland, California and Texas, 100 acres of property in Virginia and the contents of the nine bank accounts.

The U.S. Attorneys office in New York would not provide an estimate of how much money is held in those accounts. It is extremely rare for the U.S. government to take an action like this against a house of worship. The Justice Department believes it has a legal basis for these actions because it is alleged that the Alavi Foundation and Assa Corporation both cooperate with the government of Iran, and specifically with Bank Melli of Iran.

Bank Melli is one of Iran's largest banks and is under sanctions imposed by the U.S. because it has allegedly aided in financing Iran's nuclear and missile programs. The Justice Department says the two Iranian businesses have for years illegally transferred millions of dollars in rent from the building to the government of Iran.

Simultaneously yesterday, President Obama took formal action to extend U.S. sanctions on Iran for one more year, an action American presidents have taken every year since 1979.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in New York says the 5th Avenue building as well as the mosques will remain open while the U.S. pursues the case in court.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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Feds Seek To Seize Mosques, Skyscraper Tied To Iran

The entrance to the 36-story office tower at 650 5th Ave. in New York. i i

hide captionThe 36-story office tower at 650 5th Ave. in New York City is among the buildings owned by the Alavi Foundation.

Seth Wenig/AP
The entrance to the 36-story office tower at 650 5th Ave. in New York.

The 36-story office tower at 650 5th Ave. in New York City is among the buildings owned by the Alavi Foundation.

Seth Wenig/AP

The U.S. government has moved to seize control of a 36-story skyscraper in Manhattan owned by businesses fronting for the government of Iran.

The building is at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. The U.S. also seeks the forfeiture of four mosques in the U.S. owned by these businesses as well as nine bank accounts.

The total value of these assets could be as much as $500 million.

The two Iranian businesses under suspicion are the Alavi Foundation and the Assa Corporation. Together they own the skyscraper at 650 Fifth Ave. It was built by the government of the Shah of Iran in the 1970s and passed into the control of the current government of Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The foundation owns 60 percent of the building and the Assa Corporation owns the rest.

The U.S. government initiated the action to seize the building nearly a year ago in a civil complaint that focused mainly on the Assa Company.

Shortly after that, the president of the Alavi Foundation was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying documents connected to the case.

Now, in an amended complaint, the U.S. is seeking complete forfeiture of the skyscraper, plus four mosques in New York, Maryland, California and Texas, 100 acres of property in Virginia and the contents of the nine bank accounts. The U.S. Attorney's Office in New York would not provide an estimate of how much money is held in those accounts.

The U.S. government has rarely taken an action like this against a house of worship.

The Justice Department believes it has a legal basis for these actions because it is alleged that the Alavi Foundation and Assa Corporation both cooperate with the government of Iran and specifically with Bank Melli of Iran.

Bank Melli is one of Iran's largest banks and is under sanctions by the U.S. because it has allegedly aided in financing Iran's nuclear and missile programs. The Justice Department says the two Iranian businesses have for years illegally transferred millions of dollars in rent from the building to the government of Iran.

Simultaneously yesterday, President Obama took formal action to extend US sanctions on Iran for one more year, an action American presidents have taken every year since 1979.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in New York says the Fifth Avenue building as well as the mosques will remain open while the U.S. pursues the case in court.

Confiscating the properties would be a sharp blow against Iran, which has been accused by the U.S. government of bankrolling terrorism and trying to build a nuclear bomb.

The action against the Shiite Muslim mosques could inflame relations between the U.S. government and American Muslims, many of whom are fearful of a backlash after last week's Fort Hood shooting rampage, blamed on a Muslim American Army major.

The forfeiture case could take a long time to work through the courts. What will happen to the properties if the government ultimately prevails is unclear. But the government typically sells properties it has seized through forfeiture, and the proceeds are sometimes distributed to crime victims.

The U.S. has long suspected the Alavi Foundation was an arm of the Iranian government; a 97-page complaint details involvement in foundation business by several top Iranian officials, including the deputy prime minister and ambassadors to the United Nations.

"For two decades, the Alavi Foundation's affairs have been directed by various Iranian officials, including Iranian ambassadors to the United Nations, in violation of a series of American laws," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

There were no raids Thursday as part of the forfeiture action. The government is simply required to post notices of the civil complaint on the property.

As prosecutors outlined their allegations against Alavi, the Islamic centers and the schools they run carried on with normal activity. The mosques' leaders had no immediate comment.

Parents lined up in their cars to pick up their children at the schools within the Islamic Education Center of Greater Houston and the Islamic Education Center in Rockville, Md. No notices of the forfeiture action were posted at either place as of late Thursday.

At the Islamic Institute of New York, a mosque and school in Queens, two U.S. marshals came to the door and rang the bell repeatedly. The marshals taped a forfeiture notice to the window and left a large document sitting on the ground. After they left a group of men came out of the building and took the document.

The fourth Islamic center marked for seizure is in Carmichael, Calif.

The skyscraper, known as the Piaget building, was erected in the 1970s under the shah of Iran, who was overthrown in 1979. The tenants include law and investment firms and other businesses.

The sleek, modern building, last valued at $570 million to $650 million in 2007, has served as an important source of income for the foundation over the past 36 years. The most recent tax records show the foundation earned $4.5 million from rents in 2007.

Includes material from Associated Press reports.

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