High above New York's fashionable Fifth Avenue, controlling a 34-storey complex that once belonged to the Shah of Iran, sits an unusual organization called the Alavi Foundation. According to its charter, Alavi is a non-profit charitable organization, run by an independent Board of Directors, seeking to promote "understanding and harmony among persons of all faiths." But according to a classified FBI report of 1994, Alavi is "entirely controlled by the government of Iran."
Although the Clinton administration has declared a complete trade embargo with Iran, little has been done to impede the operations of the Alavi Foundation. The embargo regulations contain no authority to block the assets of Iranian government assets in the United States, unlike every other trade embargo currently in force, including those against Iraq, Libya, and the former Yugoslavia. U.S. officials said this was because of unspecified State Department "concerns " (perhaps that old saw that moderates are still lurking behind the Ayatollah's robe). Yet there is much evidence to suggest that Alavi has been engaged in a spectrum of illegal activities, from attempted purchases of embargoed high-technology goods and biological warfare agents to involvement in a brutal 1980 murder in the metropolitan Washington area.
Now an investigation of Alavi has been begun by the New York State attorney General's office, after the subject was raised publicly by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY). D'Amato wants state investigators to determine whether the foundation can be shut down Meanwhile, federal investigators are examining Alavi's links to terrorist organizations operating in the United States and overseas. The foundation's president, Mohammad Geramian, refused to respond to more than a dozen telephone queries for this article, referring this reporter to the Foundation's lawyers in New York, the firm of Patterson, Belknap. They have adopted a siege mentality, responding that no questions whatsoever will be answered.
Alavi used to be known as the Mostazafan Foundation of New York, but the foundation directors changed its name in 1992 because they feared it would appear too closely associated with the Foundation of the Oppressed in Tehran, known in Persian as the Bonyad-e Mostazafan.
Despite the name change, however, Mostazafan remains Alavi's parent organization. It is for intents and purposes a multi-billion dollar manufacturing and trading conglomerate run by Mohsen Rafiq-doust, former minister of Iran's brutal Revolutionary Guards and a key figure in Iran's international terrorist apparatus. Rafiq-doust played a major role in negotiating the purchase from of SCUD-B missiles from North Korea during the Iran-Iraq war. And the Revolutionary Guards are still posted in Lebanon, where they have trained and armed the Hezbollah militias. Hezbollah guerrillas were responsible for the 1983 car-bombing of a U.S. Marines post in Beirut in 1983 which killed 242, and they continue to mount terrorist attacks against Israel.
Hezbollah, along with another Middle Eastern terrorist organization, Hamas, is cited in the State Department's annual report on international terrorism. Former FBI official Oliver "Buck" Revell told New York Newsday reporters that the Alavi Foundation "funds a great number of mosques... where there are organizations which directly support Hezbollah and Hamas."
In congressional testimony on September 27, Philip Wilcox, State Department coordinator for Counter-terrorism, blamed Hezbollah and Iran for the July 1994 bombing against a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 90 people. Argentine government investigators have recently discovered new evidence linking an official at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires to the bombing.
In a 1992 English-language pamphlet about Mostazafan activities, Rafiq-doust claimed that the organization has an annual budget in excess of $10 billion at the official exchange rate, "comprising 7 to 10% of the national budget of the country." He also stated that the "Foundation has many overseas establishments such as Vena commercial company in Germany, commercial companies in the United Arab Emirates and Far East, as well as many health and remedial centers in Germany and U.K., an Iranian cultural-sports organization in Dubai and a non-beneficiary [i.e., non-profit][ institution in New York called New York Foundation." This last is the Alavi Foundation, whose directors still claim they have no direct link to Tehran.
Mostazafan's far-flung international network of trading companies and commercial fronts is being used to purchase sophisticated technologies for Iran's nuclear weapons program, in an attempt to break the U.S. trade embargo and to acquire strategic technologies from the West. Rafiq-doust and Mostazafan are concentrating their efforts in four major areas - Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and Singapore.
In Canada, the Iranians are using the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company, and its subsidiary, Kala Naft, to purchase U.S. oil field equipment otherwise banned for sale to Iran. Instead of seeking to import the equipment directly to Iran, they pose as local Canadian buyers. The Commerce Department, which is supposed to require an individually-validated export license for such sales if there is reason to believe that Iran is the intended purchase, has apparently not awakened to the scheme.
In the UAE, Mostazafan has two direct subsidiaries, located in Dubai and in the Jebel Ali Free Trade zone. These, and a series of smaller trading companies, serve as fronts for the purchase of American technology and equipment which otherwise would be blocked for sale to Iran because of the embargo. The State Department has begun quiet negotiations with the government of the UAE, which would like to purchase advanced F-15 fighter bombers from the U.S., to put a halt to this trade. So far, the U.S. efforts have not been met with success.
Singapore has long been a haven for black market arms smugglers, and Mostazafan has set up a special arms trading company known as Bonyad Marketing Industries, Private Ltd., located at 08/07 Park Way Parade. In addition to spare parts for Iran's U.S.-built F-4 and F-5 fighters, Bonyad Marketing has been purchasing large quantities of Hewlett Packard and Sun SparcServer computers for use in Iran. Even before the recent trade embargo, Iran could not readily import computers more advanced than old 386 machines. But Bonyad Marketing has had no difficulties in purchasing U.S. machines from less regarding commercial outlets in Asia.
In addition to Vena Industries in Germany, Iran owns a private airfield in Hartenholm, near the northern port of Hamburg, which U.S. intelligence officials say is being used to ferry nuclear equipment purchased in Austria and the Czech republic to Iran. The equipment is flown into Hartenholm on small private planes, then loaded onto Iran Air cargo planes and sent on to Tehran. The German authorities. when queried about this traffic earlier this year by the New York Times, said "it is almost impossible to trace the material being smuggled out by the Iranians."
The Mostazafan Foundation got its start in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini signed an official decree seizing all the property of the former Shah, including his charitable institution, the Pahlavi Foundation. While Khomeini could not legally seize the New York branch of the Pahlavi Foundation, which owned a 34-storey office building on Fifth Avenue, through a campaign of intimidation he forced the New York board of directors to resign. They were replaced in August 1979 with a new board headed by an Iranian-American named Manoucher Shafie, who openly proclaimed his sympathies for Khomeini's Islamic Republic.
Under Shafie's leadership, the Mostazafan Foundation of New York became a vehicle for propagating the ideas and the cause of the Islamic Republic in the U.S. It gave scholarships to "Students of the Imam's Line," the radical organization that orchestrated the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. And in 1980, it began establishing a series of Islamic Centers around the United States, in areas where Iranian exiles tended to flock. One of these centers, in Potomac, Maryland, was run by a radical Islamic teacher who was interrogated by police for his involvement in the July 22, 1980 Bethesda murder of an Iranian exile who was hostile to the new regime.
Bahram Nahidian was active in the Muslim Students Association in the late 1970s and was a self-avowed follower of Ayatollah Khomeini. In sworn testimony given during the Bethesda trial of the accused murderer, David Belfield, Nahidian told the FBI that he had converted Belfield to Islam while the latter was serving a prison sentence in Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County, Va. Belfield fled the country after the murder and later appeared in Iran, where he was granted asylum.
The Potomac Center offers Farsi-language primary school classes that are fully accredited with the Iranian national educational system. It also offers religious education classes for adults and children, and distributes Iranian government propaganda. At the Center's bookstore one can purchase the original version of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa - or religious order - condemning British author Salman Rushdie to death for having blasphemed against Islam. The fatwa instructs Muslims throughout the world that it is a "religious duty" to assassinate Rushdie. The bookstore also sells video-taped speeches by anti-Semitic fanatics such as the Swiss-based Ahmed Huber, who extols Ayatollah Khomeini as the living continuation of Adolf Hitler.
The current leader of the Potomac Center is Mohammad al Asi, well known to the Islamic community in the metropolitan Washington area and also to the police. For the past seven years, he has held weekly religious services on the sidewalk across the street from the Massachusetts avenue mosque in Washington. Al Asi had been a prayer leader in the mosque itself, but was tossed out because of his virulent pro-Khomeini rhetoric. He continues to speak at pro-Iranian political meetings and commemorations at the Potomac Islamic center. Terrorism expert Khalid Duran, who helped research the public television documentary "Jihad in America" produced by Stephen Emerson and aired in November 1994, said al Asi "wants to be the chief Khomeinist spokesman in the United States."
Al Asi has also spoken at conferences of the Islamic Committee for Palestine, a front group which Emerson called "a de facto branch of Islamic Jihad in the United States." Al Asi is quoted in Emerson's film as calling on delegates at a 1990 ICP conference in Chicago to launch attacks on the United States. "If the Americans are placing their forces in the Persian Gulf, we should be creating another war front for the Americans in the Muslim world - and specifically, where American interests are concentrated. In Egypt, in Turkey, in the Indian subcontinent, just to mention a few. Strike against American interests there."
In an interview last year, Al Asi decried Jews for exercising "[dis]proportionate control over the instruments of government. I would say Capitol Hill is Zionist-occupied territory, I would say the executive building, the White House, is also under a cloud of Zionist - a Zionist umbrella, and so can be said about the State Department, the Pentagon, etc."
According to public tax records, the Alavi Foundation has poured an average of $500,000 per year into the Potomac Islamic center since purchasing it in 1980. Officially, the money has been used for "religious ceremonies," "Islamic education," and "Farsi-language schools."
But police and FBI officials have long suspected the Alavi Foundation of using its Islamic centers and mosques as a means of penetrating the Black Muslim community in the United States to recruit sympathizers to the Islamic Republic. Several black Muslims involved in the World Trade Center bombings were recruited at mosques in Jersey City, New Jersey, and in Brooklyn. Both mosques received funds from the Alavi Foundation in New York. (Indeed, Sheikh Abdul Rahman, who was recently convicted of having masterminded the New York bombings in 1993, resided in Brooklyn and frequently preached at the Brooklyn mosque.) Public tax records show that the Mostazafan Foundation of New York paid more than $1.4 million to the Brooklyn Mosque during the five years between 1987 and 1992, precisely when the bombings were being planned.
In recent years, current and former Mostazafan directors have been caught by U.S. government agents in attempts to illegally purchase sophisticated technology in the United States for export to Iran.
One scheme, to purchase mainframe IBM computers in California for Iran's Ministry of Agriculture, was temporarily disrupted by the Commerce Department's Office of Export Enforcement in 1993. The plan involved no fewer than 15 front companies on three continents. Another scheme, exposed by New York Newsday this spring, was an attempt by a former President of Mostazafan New York, Manoucher Shafie, to deliver a lie detector machine to Iran's Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. (Polygraph machines cannot be exported anywhere without the explicit approval of U.S. intelligence, which relies on them to catch the lies of its own spies). The case against Shafie was eventually dropped, because Commerce could not prove knew the contents of the shipping box, which was closed at the time of his arrest.
Shafie's successor as President of the Foundation, Mohammad Mahallati, was investigated in 1993 by the Commerce Department for allegedly trying to buy botulinum toxins on behalf of Iran - the same toxins that were used by Iraq to make an extremely lethal type of biological weapon. Mahallati operates a series of trading companies out of an office suite located at 516 Fifth Avenue in New York. One of those companies, the now defunct Al Makasseb General Trading, helped finance the 1993 IBM computer deal. It hardly seems to be coincidence that Mahallati's brother was Iran's ambassador to the U.N. in the 1980s.
The FBI alleges that the brother of Iran's current Ambassador, Kamal Kharazi, is a regular visitor to the foundation's Fifth avenue headquarters. (When I asked for Mr. Kharazi at the Alavi office, I was told he was unavailable because he and Mohammad Geramian, the foundation's director, were in a meeting).
Iranian exiles claim that Alavi is used by Iran's UN mission to channel funds to a wide variety of propaganda and recruitment fronts, including an Iranian television network in New York, a weekly newspaper published in Rockville, Maryland, an Iranian business center and monthly business magazine in New York. The center and magazine are located at the same 516 Fifth Avenue office building as Mahallati's operation. They are run by Ali Sabzalian, a former head of the Iranian Interests section in Washington. The Interests Section and its employees are under close FBI surveillance. But former employees are not.
Although Alavi's projects raise eyebrows within law enforcement circles, its foreign grant program appears to conflict directly with the Foundation charter, which stipulates that "the territory in which its operations are principally to be conducted is the United States of America." In the past fifteen years, the foundation has sent money back to Iran and elsewhere, to support agencies of the Islamic Republic of Iran or its propaganda goals.
Among the recipients of Alavi's largesse is the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, which has been used to train engineers for Iran's armaments industry and its nuclear program.
Since 1987, the foundation has distributed more than $400,000 to a variety of state-run organizations in Iran, including the University of Tehran, Islamic Azad University of Karaj [owned by the Rafsanjani family], and a number of medical colleges. U.S. government investigators believe that some of this money was used to purchase gas chromatography and other equipment in the United States which could have been used for Iran's chemical weapons programs. The Foundation also sent money to Iran's Red Crescent society, the organization listed as the final end-used of the deadly botulinum toxins former Alavi President Mohammad Mahalatti attempted to purchase in 1993.
Perhaps one of Alavi's most curious foreign donations is a regular $60,000 annual contribution to Islamic Education Academy in Germany. This money has ostensibly gone to finance an encyclopedia of Islamic thought, of which a scant two volumes have appeared.
Professor Abduljavad Fallaturi heads the Islamic Academy in Cologne, and is a well-known Islamic scholar. He has long been associated with the Center for Islamic Studies at the University of Cologne, and was embarrassed when a reporter recently asked him about his connection to Mostazafan-New York. Initially he denied any connection to the Foundation, but when the reporter called back, Fallaturi kept changing his story. In a subsequent call, he claimed he had received $2,000 from the Foundation. But later, after he had called New York and been told that the payments were a matter of public record, he acknowledged he had received more than $200,000 from the Foundation's Tehran-based director, Mohammad Pirayendeh, through the Dresder Bank. (Pirayendeh is suspected by U.S. law enforcement officials of involvement in arms procurement schemes on behalf of the Islamic Republic).
It is not known how Fallaturi used the $485,000 the tax records show he received from Mostazafan from 1985-1991. However, German intelligence officials acknowledge that their country has become the center for Iran's intelligence and technology procurement operations in Europe. Hit teams sent by Tehran to assassinate opponents of the regime regularly coordinate their activities with the Iranian embassy in Bonn and through a series of Islamic cultural centers in other German cities, which German intelligence reports have identified as centers of Iranian terrorism.
The Iranian government is operating freely in the United States under many guises. Through the foundation, its subsidiaries, and a variety of other front organizations operating on the orders of Iran's Permanent Mission to the United Nations and supervised by its Interests Section in Washington, the Islamic Republic keeps its finger on the pulsebeat of American politics. Its representatives regularly attend Congressional hearings, and lobby Congressional offices. Its propaganda outlets make the voice of the Islamic Republic the predominant source of news about Iran within the Iranian exile community, through a vast broadcasting network that includes television and radio stations as well as dozens of publications.
Until now, the Clinton administration's trade embargo has barely made a dent in this Iranian government activity in the United States, although it is completely illegal for U.S. companies to sell even a pencil to Iran. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has designated 13 Iranian banks as "specially-designated nationals," which can no longer freely operate in the United States or with U.S. companies overseas. One of these, Bank Sepah, operated from the Alavi Building in New York. "Sepah" is the Persian word for "Army," but is commonly used to refer to the Revolutionary Guards Corps (When Rafiq-doust was head of the Guards, he was also called the Minister of Sepah).
U.S. officials acknowledge there may be constitutional problems in pursuing organizations such as Alavi that could be termed "religious." closing the Islamic Centers could be seen as a generalized attack on American Muslims, while restricting the activities of a newspaper or television station because it has received funding from an Iranian-government organization could be construed as a violation of freedom of speech.
Still, there would seem to be enough maneuvering room in the recent counter-terrorism bill to allow Treasury and other agencies to close down the Alavi Foundation and its very questionable Islamic education centers. The 1994 FBI report states that Iran has used Alavi to establish "covert sub-branches disguised as educational centers, mosques, and other centers." But until the United States government makes a coordinated effort to close down Alavi, the hostile Islamic Republic will continue to maintain a strong presence right in the very heard of the Great Satan.
Kenneth Timmerman is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran (FDI). FDI is a private, non-profit corporation registered in the State of Maryland. FDI materials, including the FDI Newswire, are available free-of-charge via the Internet at http://www.iran.org/.