The US has long barred Iran from conducting any business in this country, ever since the sacking of our embassy in Tehran and kidnapping of its personnel for 444 days. However, the US suspects that Iran has used a front company, Alavi, to acquire hundreds of millions in assets in the US, including a New York City skyscraper and four mosques. The federal government has filed to seize these assets, which appears to indicate that the outstretched hand will contain … a subpoena:
In what could be one of the biggest counterterrorism seizures in U.S. history, federal prosecutors sought to take over four U.S. mosques and a New York City skyscraper owned by a Muslim organization suspected of being controlled by the Iranian government.
Prosecutors on Thursday 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, Maryland, California and Houston; more than 100 acres in Virginia; and a 36-story Manhattan office tower. Confiscating the properties would be a sharp blow against Iran, which the U.S. government has accused of bankrolling terrorism and trying to build a nuclear bomb.
The assets are run by the Alavi Foundation, which Michelle notes has another interesting mission — it sends Korans to prison inmates, which seems a little incongruous for a simple property management company. There’s nothing illegal about that, but there is something illegal with sending millions of dollars in rental income to Iran through a front company, Assa Corporation, to Iran’s Bank of Melli. The US considers Melli to be a part of Iran’s financing for its nuclear program and it has long been illegal to do any business with Melli.
The US has not physically seized the assets yet, and the feds can expect a fight. The skyscraper will not cause nearly as much controversy as the seizure of the mosques, and the courts will want a clear reason to allow places of worship to be seized. As the AP notes, that action may well be seen by a court as an unconstitutional breach of the First Amendment. The protection of religion in the US is not absolute, of course; if a place of worship acts as a criminal enterprise, law enforcement agencies have the duty to arrest those responsible and put an end to any criminal activity. If Iran funds these mosques in violation of federal law, then the US has the jurisdiction to seize them. But they had better have an airtight case if they expect a judge to sign off on the seizure.
The timing is interesting. Obama has made quite a show of offering an “outstretched hand” to Iran in order to get them into talks to normalize relations and end their nuclear-weapons program. Obama won a Nobel Prize for his talk, but no concessions from Iran. In fact, they have made it clear this week that they have no intention of following through even on the weak concessions they made on storing enriched uranium. The sudden and surprising news of these seizures may be more of an outstretched finger than a hand as a response to their reversal on the IAEA agreement.