In a surprise move on Friday, the United States federal government has seized control of four mosques and a Manhattan skyscraper belonging to a Muslim non-profit group. The seized properties are in New York City, Rockville, Maryland, Houston, Texas, and Sacramento, California. Included is the Islamic Education Center in Southwest Houston. Fahem Kazimi, the Chairman of the Al-Hadi School in Houston commented on the status of this building which is leased by the Alavi Foundation, pointing out that they only lease the building.
Kazimi describes the Islamic Association of Houston as an independent organization not affiliated with any secret organization. A staff member at the school, formally known as the Al-Hadi School of Accelerative Learning, Farouk Abdulgakni, said the Islamic Education Center Houston provides services to the community, provides a place for people to worship, has a community clinic, and a full time school. "We have a program where the children are able to finish their high school early and they can take college courses at the same time." Those who worship here say about 300 children, including Abdulgakni's three children, attend school here. "This is really upsetting to me," he said.
Abdulgakni went on to say, "A lot of times it's short at the end of the year – we have to donate money to keep the building afloat … It's not fair that this is how we are being treated, that our building is going to be seized, that my children are going to have to look for a new school — my friends are going to have to look for new jobs."
Prosecutors say the Alavi Foundation illegally funneled millions in rental income back to Iran's state-owned bank which is accused of providing support for Iran's nuclear program. Abdulgakni however said all money from tuition at the Al-Hadi school goes to pay teachers' salaries and other operating expenses for the building.
The New York City building which was seized is a skyscraper, known as the Piaget building, which was erected in the 1970s on Fifth Avenue under the Shah of Iran, who was overthrown in 1979. The Los Angeles Times reports, referring to the statements of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, that the Alavi Foundation has effectively been a front for the government of Iran, that their affairs have been directed for "two decades" by Iranian officials, including United Nations' ambassadors, and that this is a violation of American law. The properties and bank accounts being sought by the government in a civil lawsuit are worth more than $500 million and represent one of the largest attempted seizures of assets allegedly linked to Iran. Tenants and occupants of the properties "remain free to use the properties," said Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for Bharara's office. "There are no allegations of any wrongdoing on the part of any of these tenants or occupants."
There are already steps being taken to distance the Obama administration from the takeover. An anonymous U.S. official said the action was not coordinated by the White House. It comes, the official says, at a time when President Obama is stepping up diplomatic overtures to Iran in an attempt to have Iran abandon its nuclear program. Some have suggested a connection between the current action, and the arrest of three American hikers. According to the Christian Science Monitor, in July Iran charged three Americans with espionage, after they strayed during a hiking trip in northern Iraq. Family members have made appeals for their release, shown snapshots of the three visiting tourist sites in the Middle East, and say they wandered into Iran by accident. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently renewed her call for the release of the three hikers.
In court documents, prosecutors said Alavi and a related entity were sending money to Bank Melli, which the Treasury Department alleges is owned by the Iranian government and is being used to help build its weapons program. U.S. citizens, banks, and businesses are barred from using Bank Melli. In 2007, the US accused Bank Melli of providing services to Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and put the bank on its list of companies whose assets must be frozen. Washington has imposed sanctions against various other Iranian businesses.
Thursday's action appeared to be the latest move in a drawn out case against Alavi that commenced last year with a grand jury investigation into the foundation's relationship with Bank Melli. A U.S. law known as the International Emergency Economic Powers Act allows properties to be seized as proceeds of violations of money-laundering statutes.
An immediate reaction was forthcoming from the from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which said that a government effort to seize mosques was "unprecedented" and likely to have 1st Amendment implications. A spokesman for that Council said: "Whatever the details of the government's case against the owners of the mosques, as a civil rights organization we are concerned that the seizure of American houses of worship could have a chilling effect on the religious freedom of citizens of all faiths and may send a negative message to Muslims worldwide," According to Iranian news site Al Jazeera, the Alavi Foundation has been using rents collected from the building to help fund the centers and other ventures, including sending educational literature to imprisoned Muslims in the US. The foundation has also invested in dozens of mosques around the country and supported Iranian academics at prominent universities.
Al Jazeera reports that it "is extremely rare for US law enforcement authorities to seize a house of worship, a move fraught with questions on the constitutional right to freedom of religion." John Winter, lawyer for the Alavi Foundation, told the AP that the organization will defend the case, adding that it has been cooperating with investigators for almost a year. "Obviously the foundation is disappointed that the government has decided to bring this action."
The forfeiture action comes at a tense moment in US-Iranian relations, with the two sides at odds over Iran's nuclear programme and its arrest of three American hikers. Michael Rubin, an expert on Iran at the American Enterprise Institute, said the timing of the forfeiture action was probably a coincidence, not an effort to influence Iran on those issues. "Suspicion about the Alavi Foundation transcends three administrations," he said. "It's taken ages dealing with the nuts and bolts of the investigation. It's not the type of investigation which is part of any larger strategy.
At this point, as the story is still unfolding. There is no evidence of Congressional awareness, or approval. A clear statement from President Obama would be helpful to address concerns that this unanticipated takeover of places of worship and the education of children by the United States government may have far-ranging ramifications.