US moves to seize tower, 4 mosques linked to Iran
NEW YORK - Federal prosecutors took steps yesterday to seize four US 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 US 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 office tower in New York.
Confiscating the properties would be a sharp blow against Iran, which the US government accuses of bankrolling terrorism and trying to build a nuclear bomb. A telephone call and e-mail to Iran’s UN Mission seeking comment were not immediately answered.
John D. Winter, a lawyer for the Alavi Foundation, said it intends to challenge the case and prevail. He said the foundation has been cooperating with the government’s investigation.
It is extremely rare for US 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 Shi’ite Muslim mosques is sure to inflame relations between the US government and American Muslims, many of whom are fearful of a backlash after the Fort Hood rampage, for which a Muslim American major is accused.
The mosques and the skyscraper will remain open while the forfeiture case works its way through court in what could be a long process.
Prosecutors said the Alavi Foundation managed the office tower on behalf of the Iranian government and illegally funneled millions in rental income to Iran’s state-owned Bank Melli. It is illegal in the United States to do business with the bank.