US mosques and New York skyscraper seized over links to Iran
Federal investigators moved to seize four mosques in the US and a skyscraper in Manhattan yesterday over their alleged financial aid to Iran, in an extraordinary step likely to worsen relations between Washington and Tehran.
Prosecutors in Manhattan filed a civil complaint in the federal court seeking the forfeiture of more than $500m in assets of the Alavi Foundation, which describes itself as a charitable foundation, and a company, Assa.
The mosques are in New York City, Maryland, California and Texas.
Prosecutors claim that the foundation and the company have been engaged in money laundering, with the cash sent back to Tehran.
The move could be designed to punish the Tehran government at time when its relations with the US are already strained over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme.
But the Obama administration also risks incurring the anger of American Muslims if the mosques, all Shia, are seized. The takeover of mosques would also raise constitutional questions around the right of freedom to religion.
The move comes at a sensitive time, with a debate under way in the US over the loyalty of American Muslims after the shooting at Fort Hood last week. Major Nadil Malik Hasan was yesterday charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder.
The Alavi Foundation, on its website, declares its mission to be the promotion of charitable and philanthropic causes through educational, religious and cultural programmes.
"The foundation does this by making contributions to not-for-profit organisations within the United States that support interfaith harmony and promote Islamic culture and Persian language, literature and civilisation," it says.
It says it funds these activities through rent from the Fifth Avenue skyscraper, Piaget, which was built by a company owned by the Shah of Iran in 1978 and whose ownership passed to the Iranian republic after the 1979 Islamist revolution. Tax records show that the foundation earned $4.5m in rent in 2007.
New York prosecutors alleged that the foundation, through the company Assa, illegally funnelled millions in rental income back to Iran's state-owned Bank Melli, which the US claims has been involved in Tehran's alleged attempts to secure a nuclear weapon.
The US attorney for the southern district of New York, Preet Bharara, who was appointed by Obama, issued a statement saying: "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."
Bharara asked for the foundation's accounts to be seized.
The US has in the past targeted other Iranian companies and US and European companies that do business with them and frozen their assets
The mosques and the skyscraper will remain open while the case is heard.
United States | Politics | 2009-11-13 | guardian.co.uk