A judge has ordered the forfeiture of a 36-story office tower in midtown Manhattan, because revenue from it was secretly funneled to a state-owned Iranian bank, U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday.
The building is co-owned by Alavi Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization that supports Islamic culture in the U.S., and Assa Co., which the U.S. government says is a front company for the Iranian-owned Bank Melli.
U.S. Southern District Judge of New York Katherine Forrest agreed with the government's claim that monetary transfers by Assa Co. to Iran's Bank Melli violated money laundering statutes.
The Iranian government has been designated by the U.S. as a sponsor of international terrorism, an allegation it has repeatedly denied.
"There is substantial, un-contradicted evidence that Assa is owned and controlled by Bank Melli, and that Bank Melli is wholly owned and controlled by Iran," Judge Forrest said.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement that the judge’s ruling “paves the way for the largest-ever terrorism-related forfeiture, and provides a means of compensating victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism.”
The Alavi Foundation said it was "obviously disappointed" with the judge's ruling. It said it disagreed with the court's analysis of the facts and the law and intended to appeal once a final judgment is entered.
"The Foundation was ready for trial and is disappointed that it did not have the opportunity to rebut the Government evidence before a jury," it said in an emailed statement.
The judge, in her opinion, recounted the history of the Fifth Avenue building, saying it was built in the 1970s on property acquired by a nonprofit corporation formed in New York by then Iranian leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979. She said it was valued at $83 million in 1989, when a partnership called the 650 Fifth Avenue Co. was formed, with Assa contributing $44 million in a deal the government maintained was designed to avoid U.S. taxes.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press