The U.S. Can Now Seize a $500 Million Manhattan Skyscraper From the Iranian Government


The Manhattan building known as 650 Fifth Avenue looks innocent enough. It's an unadorned brown-and-glass rectangle, amounting to a modest 36 floors. It does, however, boast a newly redesigned lobby and a new "outdoor esplanade to better serve its tenants and environment." There's an ongoing $11 million improvement project to the facility. It's probably not a bad place to work, considering the landlord.

Tuesday, a federal court found the building to be a 36-story front for the Iranian government. The building was built in the '70s by a nonprofit operated by the shah of Iran, who was overthrown in 1979. In the ensuing years, the Justice Department argues, the Iranian government came to own it through two shell companies. Today, Iran's national bank, Bank Melli, owns 40 percent of the building through a front called Assa Corp. The other 60 percent is owned by the Alavi Foundation, which is alleged to be controlled by the Iranian government.

The court's summary:

The Alavi Foundation has been providing numerous services to the Iranian Government, including managing the Building for the Iranian Government, running a charitable organization for the Iranian Government, and transferring funds from 650 Fifth Avenue Company to Bank Melli Iran ("Bank Melli"), a bank wholly owned and controlled by the Government of Iran.

This violates Washington's severe economic sanctions against Iran and paves the way for the U.S. to seize the building. According to the U.S. attorney who brought suit, the money from the sale will be used to provide "a means of compensating victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism."

The Justice Department actually does this sort of thing all the time. Recently, The New Yorker reported that the department seized a record $4.2 billion worth of assets last year (that article provides the most-comprehensive explanation of how civil forfeiture works in the U.S. The building's owners actually need not to be convicted of anything for the government to seize the property; a judge finding it was connected to a crime is reason enough.)

The investigation into the 5th Avenue skyscraper has been going on since at least 2009, according to Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD's Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden's Final Plot Against America, a book written by two AP reporters.

"The FBI believed it was a front for the Iranian government," the authors wrote. "Based on that casework, the U.S. Justice Department was preparing to confiscate Alavi's $600 million building on Fifth Avenue, which would be one of the biggest counterterrrorism seizures in U.S. History." USA Today reports the building could fetch between $500 million and $700 million.

The Alavi Foundation is disputing the claim."We have reviewed the decision and disagree with the court's analysis of the facts and the law," a statement sent to multiple news outlets read. "The Foundation was ready for trial and is disappointed that it did not have the opportunity to rebut the Government evidence before a jury."