Federal prosecutors Thursday took steps 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.Since the Iranian revolution, the US has prohibited Iran from conducting any business in the US; the contention is that these front businesses are operating illegally in the US on behalf of 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 seeking the forfeiture of more than $500 million in assets of the Alavi Foundation and an alleged front company.
The assets include Islamic centers in New York City, Maryland, California and Houston, more than 100 acres in Virginia, and a 36-story office tower in New York.
Seizing the properties would be a sharp blow against Iran, which has been accused by the U.S. government of bankrolling terrorism and seeking a nuclear bomb.
A telephone call and e-mail to Iran's U.N. Mission seeking comment were not immediately answered.
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 soldier.
The mosques and the office tower will remain open while the forfeiture case works its way through court in what could be a long process. What will happen to them if the government ultimately prevails is unclear. But the government typically sells properties it has seized through forfeiture, and the proceeds are sometimes distributed to crime victims.
There were no raids Thursday as part of the forfeiture action. The government is simply required to post notices of the civil complaint on the property.
Prosecutors said the Alavi Foundation, through a front company known as Assa Corp., illegally funneled millions in rental income back to Iran's state-owned Bank Melli. Bank Melli has been accused by a U.S. Treasury official of providing support for Iran's nuclear program, and it is illegal in the United States to do business with the bank.
Government officials have long suspected the foundation was an arm of the Iranian government; a 97-page complaint details involvement of several top officials in foundation business, including the country's deputy prime minister and ambassadors to the United Nations.
The Piaget building at 650 5th Avenue, the Imam Ali Mosque in Woodside Queens, as well as Islamic schools and centers in California, Maryland, Virginia and Texas that allegedly got funds from the Alavi Foundation were all included in the list of assets to be seized.