Iran's Long Reach Into the U.S. Homeland

Not quite two weeks ago – on Thursday, 12 November, to be more specific – the U.S. government moved against a non-profit foundation in New York that has been suspected, for many years, of being a front for the Iranian government. Prosecutors want to seize the assets of the Alavi Foundation, believed to be valued at more than $500 million, because of evidence that money from the foundation is being used to support international terrorism, to underwrite Iran’s nuclear program, to carry out espionage, to keep tabs on Iranians in the United States, and to illegally acquire sensitive U.S. technologies (and operational as well as other information about those technologies). The foundation also promotes Iran’s foreign policy goals and distributes propaganda favorable to the clerics who run Iran today.

Among the principal assets of the foundation are a 36-story office tower in New York (worth somewhere between $570 million and $650 million), various bank accounts, 100 acres of land in Virginia, and several Islamic centers (mosques and schools) in four states.

The foundation asserts, though, that it is a “private not-for-profit organization devoted to the promotion and support of Islamic culture and Persian language, literature, and civilization.” Originally established by the Shah of Iran and named the Pahlavi Foundation, the foundation was renamed after the Shah was overthrown and the mullahs came to power in Tehran.

The planned forfeiture is being contested by the foundation, which argues that it is innocent of all charges. But in the 96-page federal complaint it is alleged that the Alavi Foundation “is controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran and has been providing numerous services to the Iranian Government … including managing a commercial building for the Iranian government, running a charitable organization for the Iranian government, and transferring funds from 650 Fifth Avenue Company to Bank Melli.” The 650 Fifth Avenue Company, which owns the New York office building, is a partnership between the Alavi Foundation and Bank Melli, which is also called the National Bank of Iran, and is owned and operated by the government of Iran.

Bank Melli’s ownership is disguised through two shell companies, the Assa Corporation, incorporated in New York, and a Channel Island company named Assa Company, Ltd. The U.S. Treasury Department contends that, between 2002 and 2006, Bank Melli provided at least $100 million to such terrorist groups as the Quds Force, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. It is interesting to note that, in December 2008, the Alavi Foundation also contributed between $25,000 and $50,000 to the William J. Clinton Foundation – presumably, it has been suggested, in an effort to buy political favor.

Obstacles to a Dialogue, and the Al Shabaab Complication 

As was expected, the government of Iran denounced the planned U.S. property seizures as “disgraceful.” Here it should be noted that, although President Obama has offered a number of times, both during last year’s presidential campaign and since his inauguration, to engage in a public dialogue with the Iran, the seizure move by the United States comes at a particularly difficult time in U.S.-Iranian relations thanks in large part to: (a) the recent disclosure of another secret Iranian site engaged in uranium enrichment; and (b) continuing protests over the rigged election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency.

The fact that Iran has operated so flagrantly and openly in the United States – despite unilateral U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, followed by passage of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) of 1996, as well as various U.N. sanctions – suggests that more must be done to root out all of Iran’s front organizations and sleeper agents in the United States. No nation currently represents more of a threat to the United States itself, and to U.S. allies in the Middle East, than Iran, and the day may come when there is open conflict between the United States and Iran (and its terrorist proxies). In an era of major uncertainties, there is at least one continuing truth – namely, that the fewer assets that Iran has within America’s borders the more secure the United States will be.

Iran may be the biggest and most likely threat at present, but it is by no means the only major terrorist threat facing the United States, as the continuing conflict in Afghanistan proves. And, despite the fact that the term “global war on terrorism” is now considered (in some quarters) to be politically incorrect, the terrorist threat to the United States itself is not limited to groups or factions headquartered in the Middle East. Two months ago, FBI Director Robert Mueller voiced public concern about possible attacks within the United States that might be carried out by the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. (The first known U.S. citizen to become a suicide bomber was a Minneapolis man closely connected with Al Shabaab.)

Al-Shabaab has a particularly extreme world view that makes the Taliban look liberal by comparison. The group has gone so far as to ban certain musical “ring tones” on cell phones, declaring that they are “unIslamic.” Western clothing, including so-called “deceptive bras” worn by American women, also is banned, and Al Shabaab has suppressed virtually all forms of entertainment in the areas of Somalia that it controls.

These and other extremist measures do not necessarily make Al Shabaab a global threat, of course. But the nations of the Free World have not yet found an effective way to defeat Somalian piracy, so there is no reason for optimism on the part of those who consider Al Shabaab a relatively minor inconvenience. As for those who believe that Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Al Shabaab are merely temporary obstacles to a lasting peace throughout the Middle East, it might be well to remember that The Order of the Assassins, an earlier terrorist group driven by many of the same beliefs, was active in the same region from the eighth to the 14th centuries.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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