NEW YORK, Nov 13 – US federal prosecutors said they were moving to seize four mosques and a 36-story New York skyscraper from a non-profit Muslim group suspected of being under the Iranian government’s control.
The Alavi Foundation has been illegally funnelling funds to the Iranian government, according to the office of US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara.
Bharara filed a civil complaint with a New York federal court to forfeit bank accounts owned by the group and a suspected front company, as well as the office tower, property in Virginia and Islamic centres in New York city and the states of Maryland, Texas and California.
A total of eight real estate properties and nine bank accounts were involved.
In a 97-page complaint, US prosecutors alleged that top Iranian officials, including former deputy prime minister Tahmasb Mazaheri and ambassadors to the United Nations, were involved in the foundation’s business dealings.
"The Alavi Foundation has effectively been a front for the government of Iran," Bharara said in a statement.
The filing was likely to further Washington’s already fraught ties with Tehran, which it accuses of funding terror groups and of seeking to produce a nuclear bomb under cover of its suspect civilian nuclear program.
President Barack Obama renewed long-standing US economic sanctions against Iran for another year on Thursday, telling Congress that "our relations with Iran have not yet returned to normal."
Calls to the Alavi Foundation and the Iranian mission to the United Nations were not immediately returned.
The move to seize the Shiite Muslim places of worship, a very rare step for US law enforcement due to freedom of religion rights enshrined in the Constitution, comes as US Muslims fear a backlash following last week’s shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, allegedly by a Muslim US Army psychiatrist.
The seized Islamic centres – the Islamic Institute of New York in the city’s Queens borough, the Islamic Education Centre of Houston, Texas, the Islamic Education Centre in Rockville, Maryland and the Qoba Foundation in Carmichael, California – house mosques and schools.
But US officials were quick to stress that the complaint targeted specific properties, irrespective of what is built on them, and that the tenants and occupants remained free to use the sites.
"No action has been taken against any tenants or occupants of those properties," said Bharara spokeswoman Yusill Scribner. "There are no allegations of any wrongdoing on the part of any of these tenants or occupants."
On its website, the foundation says it is "devoted to the promotion and support of Islamic culture and Persian language, literature and civilisation" and has done so for over 30 years "by financially supporting charitable and philanthropic causes."
Prosecutors said the foundation sent funds, including rental income from the Fifth Avenue skyscraper, to Iran’s state-owned Bank Melli through Assa Corporation and its parent organization, Assa Company Limited.
The US Treasury has already designated the two groups as being fronts for Bank Melli, which it says supports Iran’s nuclear program and provides banking services to the country’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Quds Force branch.
The United States already sanctions several Iranian businesses.
In a December notice, the Treasury had mentioned the office tower, also known as the Piaget Building and located at 650 Fifth Avenue, saying Bank Melli created Assa Corporation to hold its interest in the building and citing the Alavi Foundation as a co-owner.
The group’s former president, Farhsid Jahedi, remains under investigation for alleged obstruction of justice in a pending case. He was arrested last year.
The Alavi Foundation was founded as a successor to the Pahlavi Foundation, a non-profit organization the late shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had used to pursue Iran’s charitable interests in the United States.
But after the shah was overthrown during the 1979 Islamic revolution, the revolutionary leadership changed the group’s agenda, placing it under the purview of the Bonyad Mostazafan, which reported directly to Iran’s supreme leader, the grand ayatollah.