New York Times: Federal authorities moved on Wednesday to seize assets from a company suspected of being a front for an Iranian bank that has ties to terrorism, assets that include the company’s 40 percent stake in a sleek Midtown Manhattan office tower.
The New York Times
By ANAHAD O’CONNOR
Published: December 18, 2008
Federal authorities moved on Wednesday to seize assets from a company suspected of being a front for an Iranian bank that has ties to terrorism, assets that include the company’s 40 percent stake in a sleek Midtown Manhattan office tower.
The seizure was the latest step in the government’s broader effort to financially suffocate Iran’s biggest banks, several of which have been accused of funneling money to groups like Hamas and financing Iran’s nuclear missile program. The United States and other countries have blacklisted Iranian banks in recent years and frozen their assets, part of a plan to stifle Iran’s foreign financial transactions.
On Wednesday, several branches of the government joined forces to strike a blow against Iran’s largest bank, Melli.
The Treasury Department announced that it had designated the Assa Corporation, which does business in New York, a shell company that launders money and sends it to Melli. The Assa Corporation’s parent, the Assa Company, based in the Channel Islands, owns a 40 percent stake in 650 Fifth Avenue, a 36-story granite-and-glass tower at 52nd Street. The building has many prominent tenants, including Citibank, Equity 1 and Pali Capital.
As the Treasury was making its declaration on Wednesday, the Justice Department started its own indirect strike against Bank Melli, initiating legal action to take control of the Assa Corporation’s stake in 650 Fifth Avenue and to seize funds from Assa’s bank accounts.
“This scheme to use a front company set up by Bank Melli — a known proliferator — to funnel money from the United States to Iran is yet another example of Iran’s duplicity,” Stuart Levey, the undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement on Wednesday, using a term that refers to spreading nuclear weapons to states without them. “The dangerous mix of proliferation and deception has led the United States, the European Union and Australia to designate Bank Melli, and the United Nations to issue a call for vigilance with respect to all Iranian banks.”
A man who is listed as an agent for 650 Fifth Avenue, James Quinn, did not return a phone call to his office on Wednesday.
According to legal documents filed by the office of Michael J. Garcia, the United States attorney in Manhattan, the building was constructed in the 1970s by the Pahlavi Foundation, a nonprofit agency of the shah of Iran, and financed partly by a loan from Bank Melli. By the end of the decade, the Islamic revolution had taken place, and Iran’s diplomatic relationship with the United States had soured.
In 1989, the foundation, which had renamed itself Alavi, formed the 650 Fifth Avenue Company in partnership with Bank Melli, but disguised the bank’s role by transferring its partial stake to the Assa shell company, federal authorities said. From then on, they said, the shell company sent its proceeds from the building’s rental income to Bank Melli, in violation of federal laws that forbid the exportation of goods and services to Iran without a license from the treasury.