Action sure to inflame relations between the U.S. government and American Muslims
NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors took steps Thursday to seize four U.S. mosques and a Fifth Avenue skyscraper owned by a nonprofit Muslim organization long suspected of being secretly controlled by the Iranian government.
In what could prove to be one of the biggest counterterrorism seizures in U.S. history, prosecutors filed a civil complaint in federal court against the Alavi Foundation, seeking the forfeiture of more than $500 million in assets.
The assets include bank accounts; Islamic centers consisting of schools and mosques in New York City, Maryland, California and Houston; more than 100 acres in Virginia; and a 36-story glass office tower in New York.
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.
It is extremely rare for U.S. law enforcement authorities to seize a house of worship, a step fraught with questions about the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
The action against the Shiite Muslim mosques is sure to 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 major.
The move comes at a delicate moment for US-Iranian relations. There have been signs of some diplomatic thawing between the two nations. Recent negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program — which the US fears could be used to produce nuclear weapons — resulted in a compromise deal that would allow Iran’s nuclear fuel to be enriched outside the country.
Iran, however, has so far not endorsed the deal, leading to renewed calls for tougher sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Moreover, Iran has charged three American hikers arrested over the summer in Iran with espionage.
The new effort by federal prosecutors to cast an Iranian nonprofit as an arm of the Iranian government could fray relations further.
The forfeiture action is part of an investigation into the Alavi Foundation, which the government says has sent millions of dollars to Iran’s Bank Melli. In March, the US Treasury Department called the bank a key fundraising arm for Iran’s nuclear program.
Last year, the president of the foundation, Farhsid Jahedi, was arrested and accused by U.S. prosecutors of destroying documents. The case is pending. Jahedi denies the charges.
The Alavi Foundation is a successor to one created in the 1970s by the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi was overthrown as that country’s leader in 1979. The building was constructed in 1979 by the Pahlavi Foundation, a nonprofit group set up by the Shah.
Some tenants of the foundation’s properties are Islamic centers and schools, according to phone listings.
“No action has been taken against any tenants or occupants of those properties,” Yusill Scribner, a spokesman for Bharara, said in an e-mailed statement. “There are no allegations of any wrongdoing on the part of any of these tenants or occupants.”
Iran, the world’s second-biggest holder of oil and natural- gas reserves, is subject to various U.S. sanctions over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The case is U.S. v. All Right, Title and Interest of Assa Corp., 1:08-cv-10934, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).