WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors on Thursday moved to seize several U.S. assets allegedly controlled by entities linked to the government of Iran, including a mosque and Islamic school in Potomac, Md., land in Prince William County, Va., and a Manhattan skyscraper.
Prosecutors described an intricate web of ties allegedly connecting the properties to an Iranian bank that has been identified as a key financier of Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and possibly acts of terrorism. At the center of that web, they said, is a New York-based organization known as the Alavi Foundation, which U.S. authorities have for decades suspected of being a possible Iranian front.
The action by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan puts pressure on Iran to curb its links to terrorism, even as the Obama administration seeks to reach out and negotiate with the nation over its nuclear ambitions. The rare decision to seize Islamic educational and religious institutions could also heighten tensions with the Muslim world.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed immediate concern, saying in a statement that “the seizure of American houses of worship could have a chilling effect on the religious freedom of citizens of all faiths and may send a negative message to Muslims worldwide,” especially in the aftermath of the killings at Fort Hood, Texas.
None of the properties has been formally seized. Rather, prosecutors are formally starting the process of forfeiture, which a court must recognize. Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, stressed that the filing would not affect tenants and occupants of the properties and that “there are no allegations of any wrongdoing on the part of any of these tenants or occupants.”
Prosecutors filed a civil complaint in federal court seeking the forfeiture of hundreds of millions of dollars in assets held by the Alavi Foundation and another company allegedly used as a front by Iran. Besides the properties in Manhattan and Potomac, the complaint also targets Islamic centers in California, New York City and Houston. Approximately 100 acres are being targeted in the Catharpin area in Prince William.
Citing a long list of documents and e-mails they obtained, prosecutors alleged that the Alavi Foundation, which has long said it is independent of Iran, was secretly run by members of the Islamic republic’s government, including a deputy prime minister and the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.
A spokesman for the Iranian mission at the United Nations did not return phone calls seeking comment.
John Winter, an attorney for Alavi, said the foundation had been cooperating with the government in its investigation. “The foundation is obviously disappointed the government decided to bring this forfeiture action,” he said. “We intend to litigate these claims, and we expect that when the litigation is over, we will be successful.”
Prosecutors say that Alavi has made millions of dollars in improvements to the mosques it acquired in the United States, including more than $1 million since 2000 on the facility in Potomac, the Islamic Education Center.
The money – about $4 million a year – was generated by Alavi’s 60 percent ownership of 650 Fifth Ave., a sleek Manhattan office tower that houses the flagship store of Juicy Couture. Prosecutors alleged last year that Assa Corp., which holds the 40 percent interest, is a shell company that funnels the rental proceeds through a parent company in the Channel Islands, off the coast of France, to Bank Melli, which is wholly owned by the Iranian government.
Under various laws and presidential orders, the government of Iran and related entities are prohibited from doing business in the United States without a license from the Treasury.