Washington Times: The U.S. government moved Thursday to seize property and buildings, including a New York skyscraper and four mosques, from a group it says is nothing more than a front for the Iranian government. The Washington Times
The U.S. government moved Thursday to seize property and buildings, including a New York skyscraper and four mosques, from a group it says is nothing more than a front for the Iranian government.
The request, made by federal prosecutors in New York, could raise First Amendment issues as the government seeks to essentially become the landlord for the mosques, and the move also threatens further strain on tense relations between Washington and Tehran.
The U.S. is asking a federal judge to give it ownership of property and cash from the Alavi Foundation, a nonprofit group formed in the 1970s by the shah of Iran to pursue charitable activities in the U.S., but which authorities say morphed into an extension of the Iranian government after the Islamic Revolution three decades ago.
However, government officials issued a statement Thursday night denying any attempt to take over the houses of worship or any of the other tenants on the land or buildings owned by Alavi.
"No action has been taken against any tenants or occupants of those properties," said Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York. "The tenants and occupants remain free to use the properties as they have before today's filing. There are no allegations of any wrongdoing on the part of any of these tenants or occupants."
The U.S. government is trying to seize a 36-story office tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and property whose tenants include Islamic centers in New York City, Maryland, California and Texas, as well as more than 100 acres in Virginia.
"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," said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. "The Alavi Foundation's former president remains under investigation for alleged obstruction of justice, and both the criminal and civil investigations are ongoing."
The former president, Farshid Jahedi, was arrested last year on an obstruction of justice charge accusing him of destroying documents required to be produced under a grand jury subpoena related to the Alavi Foundation's relationship with Bank Melli Iran, a bank controlled by the Iranian government.
Authorities suspect that the bank – through shell companies – and the foundation own the New York skyscraper together. Prosecutors previously filed a request to seize the 40 percent of the building owned by the bank. Thursday's filing seeks the other 60 percent. The other properties sought are owned solely by the Alavi Foundation.
Authorities are not closing any of the mosques or businesses located in the skyscraper. They also did not raid any of the properties but are seeking them through civil procedures.
On its Web site, the Alavi Foundation says it funds schools, Islamic centers and other cultural programs. It is unclear what impact the seizure of its assets would have on the group's mission.
Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the seizure comes at a bad time for American Muslims, who he said fear a backlash over the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, where a Muslim soldier is accusing of killing 13 people and wounding 29 others. Despite the government's assurances, he said, the seizure could raise religious-freedom issues.
"Whatever the details of the government's case against the owners of the mosques, as a civil rights organization we are concerned 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," he said.
However, Michael Wildes, a New York City immigration lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said the timing of Thursday's seizures, only days after the Fort Hood shootings, was coincidental and in no way a retaliatory act against the Muslim community.
"A case like this cannot be lodged without having serious investigations," he said. "You do not get warrants, you do not execute arrests unless you have an ironclad case."
Prosecutors said they have the authority to seize the properties because Iran's ownership violates various laws, executive orders and Treasury Department regulations sanctioning Iran because the Islamic republic sponsors terrorism and is seeking to build nuclear weapons.
Authorities also said they can seek the properties because they facilitate money laundering. Prosecutors said rents from the building, which contains law offices and other businesses, are given to the Iranian government.
Attempts to reach Alavi via phone and e-mail last night after business hours were unsuccessful.
A representative of the Iranian government at its U.N. mission in New York did not return an e-mail message seeking comment.
Some conservative groups praised the federal government's actions, saying Muslim terrorists have been hiding behind religious institutions for too long.
"When it comes to national security just because a place is a mosque or a church or a synagogue, it shouldn't stop the federal government [from intervening] if it's tied to terrorism," said Jordan Sekulow, director of international operations with the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington public interest law firm founded by evangelical leader Pat Robertson.
"People have to be clear; this isn't because [of an Alavi Foundation] speaker who the government doesn't agree with," Mr. Sekulow added. "This is because you've got money laundering … money that's going to blow up our soldiers" and other terrorist acts.
Mr. Sekulow added he hopes the government's action Thursday serves as a "wake-up call for average law-abiding Muslim-Americans" to stand up against radicals within their religious community.
"They need to take back their religion," he said.
Also Thursday, President Obama renewed some long-standing U.S. financial sanctions against Iran, Reuters news agency reported.
Mr. Obama notified Congress that, as expected, he was extending a set of existing U.S. measures against Tehran for another year, saying "our relations with Iran have not yet returned to normal."
The sanctions renewed Thursday involve certain frozen Iranian assets. Such sanctions have to be extended annually by the president to remain in effect.
Sean Lengell contributed to this report.