The Justice Department has seized a New York City office tower after claiming it was secretly owned by the Iranian government, who was using it to launder their money. One Wednesday, the DOJ received a summary judgement from a U.S. District Court, ruling that building's owners were actually a front for the Iranian government, placing them in violation of economic sanctions that prevent them doing business in the United States. Now the U.S. government says the building could be sold to compensate victims of "Iranian-sponsored terrorism."
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has made a name for himself by going after Wall Street crooks, said the ruling "paves the way for the largest-ever terrorism-related forfeiture," using American sanctions against Iran as the tool. The ruling allows the DOJ to seize bank accounts and other property belonging to the building's owner and use those assets to pay back victims who have standing judgments against the Iranian government because their loved ones died in terror attacks linked to Tehran.
The building in question, 650 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, was build in the 1970s by the Pahlavi Foundation, as in Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the former Shah of Iran who was installed by the U.S. and then overthrown in the Iranian Revolution. It was seized by the new Iranian government and over the years has been transferred to various shell corporations and bank entities.
In 2008, the Justice Department claimed that the building was actually 40 percent owned by Bank Melli, the Iranian national bank. Bank Melli is not allowed to do business in the U.S. and European Union thanks to unilateral sanctions placed on Iran, because of its nuclear program. It's also been accused by others of funneling money to Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups in the Middle East.
The owners were also accused of money laundering offenses, including giving their rental income to Bank Melli, which takes its orders from the leaders in Tehran. The judge's ruling states that the building's owner was not simply unaware of the connection, but was actively "providing services to assist Iran by shielding and concealing Iranian assets." The ruling avoids a trial, but can still be appealed.