US gov't to seize Manhattan skyscraper over owners' ties to Iran

Seizure, sale of 36-story Fifth Avenue building would be “the largest-ever terrorism-related forfeiture,” US Justice Dept. says.

September 18, 2013 17:46
2 minute read.
Midtown Manhattan building set to be seized by US governemnt for alleged ties to Iran.

Building on 5th Avenue set to be seized by US govt 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid )

The US government is set to seize control of a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan that prosecutors claim is secretly owned by Iran, AFP reported on Wednesday.

In a statement to the press, the US Justice Department said the seizure and sale of the 36-story 650 Fifth Avenue building would be “the largest-ever terrorism-related forfeiture.”

The funds from selling the 382,500 square-foot building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 52nd Street would be directed as compensation for victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism, Manhattan Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara was quoted by AFP as saying.

Last week, a federal judge ruled that the owners of the building violated US laws against doing business with Iran, though the ruling could still be appealed.

US District Judge Katherine Forrest found that the majority owner of the building, the Alavi Foundation, knew that two minority owners were fronts for Iran's Bank Melli, in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and US money laundering laws.

Enacted in 1977, IEEPA empowers the president to deal with threats related to national emergencies. In 1995, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order banning the supply of most services from the United States to Iran.

According to the US government's lawsuit, the building was constructed in the 1970s by a foundation set up by the Shah of Iran. That foundation was eventually succeeded by the Alavi Foundation after the Iranian revolution. In 1989, Alavi and Bank Melli used the two Assa entities to disguise Bank Melli's involvement, the government said in its lawsuit.

Alavi and Assa provided services to Iran, such as transferring rental income to Bank Melli, in violation of IEEPA, according to the lawsuit. The building generated close to $39 million in rental income from 1999 through 2007, according to the lawsuit.

In court documents, Alavi's lawyers have argued that the building has not been controlled by Iran since 1995, when US sanctions took effect.

Alavi is a non-profit organization that promotes Islamic culture and the Persian language. It donated more than $1.5 million in 2012 to recipients including Hartford Seminary, Harvard University and the Muslim Women's Institute for Research and Development, according to a website for 650 Fifth Avenue.

Private plaintiffs, victims of attacks that they contend were aided by Iran, filed their own lawsuit seeking to seize related assets.

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