The New York-based Alavi Foundation is a high-profile organization that claims to be a non profit devoted to promoting Islam and the Persian language, and has even reportedly made donations to former President Bill Clinton's foundation. But it has been under FBI suspicion for years over alleged ties with Iran.
On Thursday, those suspicions were laid out in a civil claim filed by federal prosecutors in New York seeking forfeiture of Alavi's interests in a Manhattan skyscraper and other properties that it owns in New York, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, and California. At least four mosques are located on these properties.
Federal prosecutors say the foundation is merely a front for the Iranian government and transfers rental income from its properties to Iran's Bank Melli, which was first subject to US sanctions in 2007 for alleged support of Iran's nuclear program.
Since the US declared a state of emergency over Iran's nuclear activities during the hostage crisis in the 1970s, the federal government can take action to seize any assets it believes are being used to support those efforts.
According to prosecutors, the Fifth Avenue skyscraper where the Alavi Foundation is located was built in the 1970s by its predecessor, the Pahlavi Foundation, which was set up to further the interest of then Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. When the shah was overthrown in 1979, Iran's mullahs took over his properties and renamed the New York organization the Mostazafan Foundation.
Its name was again changed to the Alavi Foundation, and prosecutors say it has since largely been directed by Iran's ambassadors to the United Nations.
The Alavi Foundation denies that it is a fundraising arm of the Iranian government and its lawyer has said the group will challenge the forfeiture action in court.
Federal investigators have been looking into the Foundation at least as far back as 2003, according to the Washington Post.
"US law enforcement and intelligence officials believe Alavi and its related institutions are a vehicle through which the Iranian regime keeps tabs on Iranians here, obtains data about US technology, promotes Tehran's views on world affairs, provides gathering places for pro-Iran activists and channels money to US academics to gain a friendly reading on Iran," reported the Post in 2003.
In response to the article, the Alavi Foundation said that its activities "are merely cultural and the Foundation does not have any political tendencies." It said that the group's Iranian heritage unfairly put it in the spotlight of federal authorities.
In May, Alavi Foundation president Farshid Jahedi was indicted on charges of destroying documents related to a grand jury investigation. Mr. Jahedi was originally arrested on Dec. 19, 2008, two days after federal prosecutors filed a forfeiture complaint against the Assa Corporation, which owns Fifth Avenue building in partnership with the Alavi Foundation. Federal prosecutors say Assa Corp. also sends rental income from the building to the Iranian government.
It's no secret that the Alavi Foundation spreads the message for the Iranian government, says Hamid Azimi, communications director for the Iranian-American Community of Northern California. In fact, he says, it's just one part of Iran's "propoganda machine" in the US.
The Alavi Foundation's activities are not confined to Islamic pursuits, according to Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the American Center for Democracy. In an article in Forbes Magazine earlier this year, she said the foundation in December 2008 made a legal contribution of $25,000 and $50,000 to the William J. Clinton Foundation.
"As long as the US government continues to treat different Iranian entities as though they are separate from the state it recognizes as a sponsor of terrorism, the mullah will be free to advance their agenda in the US," she wrote.
Federal prosecutors have stressed that the forfeiture claim does not effect the tenants of the buildings that Alavi Foundation owns. A director of an Islamic education center in Houston told the Houston Chronicle that the center was "not affiliated with any other organization."
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