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NEW YORK CITY-On Nov. 12, officials from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York took legal steps to seize nonprofit Alavi Foundation’s 60% ownership stake in the 36-story 650 Fifth Ave. commercial office tower, known as the Piaget Building. The government says Alavi Foundation, through a partnership with Assa Corp. called 650 Fifth Avenue Co., served as a front or shell-company, funneling revenue from the Midtown building through Bank Melli of Iran, and then on to Iranian government officials.

It was a year ago in December 2008 that the Treasury Department designated 650 Fifth co-owner Assa Corp. as “a front company” that had been created and controlled by Iran’s Bank Melli. Treasury said Assa Corp.’s parent organization was Assa Company Ltd., which called the Channel Islands home to its headquarters. Treasury noted that in 2007, Bank Melli had been designated as proliferators by the United States and the European Union for its role in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

A source familiar with the latest government move tells GlobeSt.com that it’s important to remember, that at this stage, only a forfeiture complaint has been filed for the two ownership entities in the building. The source says that not until the conclusion of forfeiture proceedings, in favor of the government, will any real property be seized. That same source says there are other potential outcomes to the government efforts, including dismissal, summary judgment or settlement.

But, if the government does prevail and assumes ownership at the site, a number of scenarios are possible, including a property auction by US marshals.

For its part, Alavi Foundation attorney John Winter tells GlobeSt.com his client is “disappointed in the government’s actions. The foundation had been cooperating with the government for the better part of a year, responding to various questions that the government had put to the foundation.” He adds, “The foundation intends to litigate [these] matters, and expects to prevail in the end,” says Winter.

As for the government’s sense of timing, Winter says “we are not going to speculate as to the government’s intentions, motives or timing.” However, as to the case’s eventual outcome, he says he suspects the litigation will be “protracted.”

For now, business at 650 Fifth can go as it has for the past three decades, according to an official statement from a spokeswoman at the US Attorney’s office who says “tenants and occupants remain free to use the properties as they did before” the filing. She says there are “no allegations of any wrongdoing on the part of any of these tenants or occupants.”

But it’s hard to ignore the government’s civil complaint, which paints a portrait of glaring deceit and intrigue more worthy of a James Bond movie than a real estate website. Spokesmen for the Treasury or Justice Department would not speak directly to the case, nor did they recall similar actions toward a large commercial property, instead they referred GlobeSt.com back to the US Attorney’s office, which declined to offer more details than those contained in the complaint. Further, most real estate players were not willing to discuss any potential repercussions associated with the case.

But, perhaps more puzzling is the apparent late date for the current action, since if what officials charge is true, a large commercial office tower in Midtown has been serving for 30 years as a cash cow to a nation the United States considers hostile to its interests.

On April 7, 1980, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran. Over the years, relations between the two have been further strained, most recently as Iran has been named as proliferators of nuclear weaponry.

The complaint spells out in fine detail that since the revolution, the Mostazafan Foundation of New York, and later the Alavi Foundation, acted “at the direction of, and provided services to, entities owned an controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

It was the year following the Iranian revolution that the Islamic Republic of Iran established the Bonyad Mostazafan, also known as Bonyad Mostasafan va Janbazan, That organization’s job was to centralize and take possession of, and manage property expropriated by the revolutionary government. According to the government complaint, the Bonyad Mostazafan sought to take control of the former Shah’s property, including assets of the Pahlavi Foundation. According to the document, the Bonyad Mostazafan reports directly to the Ayatollah.

Years earlier, in 1973, the Shah of Iran had established the Pahlavi Foundation, a not for profit corporation under the laws of the State of New York to pursue charitable interests in the United States. The complaint says that in the 1970s, Iran had loaned Pahlavi around $43 million to acquire the rights to real estate and construct a commercial office building at 650 Fifth Avenue.

In 1989, the Iranian Government approved a partnership between the Mostazafan Foundation of New York and Bank Melli to solve its IRS ‘tax problem.’ As part of a mutual agreement between the two, the New York Foundation would agree to pay taxes, if the building was sold or transferred up to the amount of $130 million. The complaint says “if the amount were more than $130 million, Bank Melli Iran would pay the tax balance.”

The US Attorney alleges that Mostafazan foundation was eventually named Alavi Foundation and that Alavi concealed Bank Melli’s control of Assa Corporation from its own counsel and from the New York State Attorney General.

In 1989, an assistant Attorney General for New York State wrote to an attorney law firm acting as outside counsel for the Alavi Foundation to confirm a conversation about the Alavi Foundation’s proposed transfer of real property to the partnership.

Fast forward to 2008, when after a court-ordered search, federal agents found notes where Iranian UN Ambassador Mohammad Khazee discussed commercial aspects of 650 Fifth with Alavi president Farshi Jahedi. The two also talked about charitable activities associated with the Alavi Foundation. The court papers say Khazee stated, “among other things, that it was necessary to increase the profit from the building” at 650 Fifth.

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