High above New York's fashionable Fifth Avenue, controlling a 34-storeycomplex that once belonged to the Shah of Iran, sits an unusual organizationcalled the Alavi Foundation. According to its charter, Alavi is a non-profitcharitable organization, run by an independent Board of Directors, seekingto promote "understanding and harmony among persons of all faiths."But according to a classified FBI report of 1994, Alavi is "entirelycontrolled by the government of Iran."
Although the Clinton administration has declared a complete trade embargowith Iran, little has been done to impede the operations of the Alavi Foundation.The embargo regulations contain no authority to block the assets of Iraniangovernment assets in the United States, unlike every other trade embargocurrently in force, including those against Iraq, Libya, and the formerYugoslavia. U.S. officials said this was because of unspecified State Department"concerns " (perhaps that old saw that moderates are still lurkingbehind the Ayatollah's robe). Yet there is much evidence to suggest thatAlavi has been engaged in a spectrum of illegal activities, from attemptedpurchases of embargoed high-technology goods and biological warfare agentsto involvement in a brutal 1980 murder in the metropolitan Washington area.
Now an investigation of Alavi has been begun by the New York State attorneyGeneral's office, after the subject was raised publicly by Sen. AlfonseD'Amato (R-NY). D'Amato wants state investigators to determine whetherthe foundation can be shut down Meanwhile, federal investigators are examiningAlavi's links to terrorist organizations operating in the United Statesand overseas. The foundation's president, Mohammad Geramian, refused torespond to more than a dozen telephone queries for this article, referringthis reporter to the Foundation's lawyers in New York, the firm of Patterson,Belknap. They have adopted a siege mentality, responding that no questionswhatsoever will be answered.
Alavi used to be known as the Mostazafan Foundation of New York, butthe foundation directors changed its name in 1992 because they feared itwould appear too closely associated with the Foundation of the Oppressedin Tehran, known in Persian as the Bonyad-e Mostazafan.
Despite the name change, however, Mostazafan remains Alavi's parentorganization. It is for intents and purposes a multi-billion dollar manufacturingand trading conglomerate run by Mohsen Rafiq-doust, former minister ofIran's brutal Revolutionary Guards and a key figure in Iran's internationalterrorist apparatus. Rafiq-doust played a major role in negotiating thepurchase from of SCUD-B missiles from North Korea during the Iran-Iraqwar. And the Revolutionary Guards are still posted in Lebanon, where theyhave trained and armed the Hezbollah militias. Hezbollah guerrillas wereresponsible for the 1983 car-bombing of a U.S. Marines post in Beirut in1983 which killed 242, and they continue to mount terrorist attacks againstIsrael.
Hezbollah, along with another Middle Eastern terrorist organization,Hamas, is cited in the State Department's annual report on internationalterrorism. Former FBI official Oliver "Buck" Revell told NewYork Newsday reporters that the Alavi Foundation "funds a great numberof mosques... where there are organizations which directly support Hezbollahand Hamas."
In congressional testimony on September 27, Philip Wilcox, State Departmentcoordinator for Counter-terrorism, blamed Hezbollah and Iran for the July1994 bombing against a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed90 people. Argentine government investigators have recently discoverednew evidence linking an official at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Airesto the bombing.
In a 1992 English-language pamphlet about Mostazafan activities, Rafiq-doustclaimed that the organization has an annual budget in excess of $10 billionat the official exchange rate, "comprising 7 to 10% of the nationalbudget of the country." He also stated that the "Foundation hasmany overseas establishments such as Vena commercial company in Germany,commercial companies in the United Arab Emirates and Far East, as wellas many health and remedial centers in Germany and U.K., an Iranian cultural-sportsorganization in Dubai and a non-beneficiary [i.e., non-profit][ institutionin 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 andcommercial fronts is being used to purchase sophisticated technologiesfor Iran's nuclear weapons program, in an attempt to break the U.S. tradeembargo and to acquire strategic technologies from the West. Rafiq-doustand 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 OilCompany, and its subsidiary, Kala Naft, to purchase U.S. oil field equipmentotherwise banned for sale to Iran. Instead of seeking to import the equipmentdirectly to Iran, they pose as local Canadian buyers. The Commerce Department,which is supposed to require an individually-validated export license forsuch 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 Dubaiand in the Jebel Ali Free Trade zone. These, and a series of smaller tradingcompanies, serve as fronts for the purchase of American technology andequipment which otherwise would be blocked for sale to Iran because ofthe embargo. The State Department has begun quiet negotiations with thegovernment of the UAE, which would like to purchase advanced F-15 fighterbombers from the U.S., to put a halt to this trade. So far, the U.S. effortshave not been met with success.
Singapore has long been a haven for black market arms smugglers, andMostazafan has set up a special arms trading company known as Bonyad MarketingIndustries, Private Ltd., located at 08/07 Park Way Parade. In additionto spare parts for Iran's U.S.-built F-4 and F-5 fighters, Bonyad Marketinghas been purchasing large quantities of Hewlett Packard and Sun SparcServercomputers for use in Iran. Even before the recent trade embargo, Iran couldnot readily import computers more advanced than old 386 machines. But BonyadMarketing has had no difficulties in purchasing U.S. machines from lessregarding commercial outlets in Asia.
In addition to Vena Industries in Germany, Iran owns a private airfieldin Hartenholm, near the northern port of Hamburg, which U.S. intelligenceofficials say is being used to ferry nuclear equipment purchased in Austriaand the Czech republic to Iran. The equipment is flown into Hartenholmon small private planes, then loaded onto Iran Air cargo planes and senton to Tehran. The German authorities. when queried about this traffic earlierthis year by the New York Times, said "it is almost impossible totrace the material being smuggled out by the Iranians."
The Mostazafan Foundation got its start in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeinisigned an official decree seizing all the property of the former Shah,including his charitable institution, the Pahlavi Foundation. While Khomeinicould not legally seize the New York branch of the Pahlavi Foundation,which owned a 34-storey office building on Fifth Avenue, through a campaignof intimidation he forced the New York board of directors to resign. Theywere replaced in August 1979 with a new board headed by an Iranian-Americannamed Manoucher Shafie, who openly proclaimed his sympathies for Khomeini'sIslamic Republic.
Under Shafie's leadership, the Mostazafan Foundation of New York becamea vehicle for propagating the ideas and the cause of the Islamic Republicin the U.S. It gave scholarships to "Students of the Imam's Line,"the radical organization that orchestrated the seizure of the U.S. embassyin Tehran. And in 1980, it began establishing a series of Islamic Centersaround the United States, in areas where Iranian exiles tended to flock.One of these centers, in Potomac, Maryland, was run by a radical Islamicteacher who was interrogated by police for his involvement in the July22, 1980 Bethesda murder of an Iranian exile who was hostile to the newregime.
Bahram Nahidian was active in the Muslim Students Association in thelate 1970s and was a self-avowed follower of Ayatollah Khomeini. In sworntestimony given during the Bethesda trial of the accused murderer, DavidBelfield, Nahidian told the FBI that he had converted Belfield to Islamwhile the latter was serving a prison sentence in Lorton Reformatory inFairfax County, Va. Belfield fled the country after the murder and laterappeared in Iran, where he was granted asylum.
The Potomac Center offers Farsi-language primary school classes thatare fully accredited with the Iranian national educational system. It alsooffers religious education classes for adults and children, and distributesIranian government propaganda. At the Center's bookstore one can purchasethe original version of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa - or religious order- condemning British author Salman Rushdie to death for having blasphemedagainst Islam. The fatwa instructs Muslims throughout the world that itis a "religious duty" to assassinate Rushdie. The bookstore alsosells video-taped speeches by anti-Semitic fanatics such as the Swiss-basedAhmed Huber, who extols Ayatollah Khomeini as the living continuation ofAdolf Hitler.
The current leader of the Potomac Center is Mohammad al Asi, well knownto the Islamic community in the metropolitan Washington area and also tothe police. For the past seven years, he has held weekly religious serviceson the sidewalk across the street from the Massachusetts avenue mosquein Washington. Al Asi had been a prayer leader in the mosque itself, butwas tossed out because of his virulent pro-Khomeini rhetoric. He continuesto speak at pro-Iranian political meetings and commemorations at the PotomacIslamic center. Terrorism expert Khalid Duran, who helped research thepublic television documentary "Jihad in America" produced byStephen Emerson and aired in November 1994, said al Asi "wants tobe 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 Jihadin the United States." Al Asi is quoted in Emerson's film as callingon delegates at a 1990 ICP conference in Chicago to launch attacks on theUnited States. "If the Americans are placing their forces in the PersianGulf, we should be creating another war front for the Americans in theMuslim 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]proportionatecontrol over the instruments of government. I would say Capitol Hill isZionist-occupied territory, I would say the executive building, the WhiteHouse, is also under a cloud of Zionist - a Zionist umbrella, and so canbe said about the State Department, the Pentagon, etc."
According to public tax records, the Alavi Foundation has poured anaverage of $500,000 per year into the Potomac Islamic center since purchasingit 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 Foundationof using its Islamic centers and mosques as a means of penetrating theBlack Muslim community in the United States to recruit sympathizers tothe Islamic Republic. Several black Muslims involved in the World TradeCenter bombings were recruited at mosques in Jersey City, New Jersey, andin Brooklyn. Both mosques received funds from the Alavi Foundation in NewYork. (Indeed, Sheikh Abdul Rahman, who was recently convicted of havingmasterminded the New York bombings in 1993, resided in Brooklyn and frequentlypreached at the Brooklyn mosque.) Public tax records show that the MostazafanFoundation of New York paid more than $1.4 million to the Brooklyn Mosqueduring the five years between 1987 and 1992, precisely when the bombingswere being planned.
In recent years, current and former Mostazafan directors have been caughtby U.S. government agents in attempts to illegally purchase sophisticatedtechnology in the United States for export to Iran.
One scheme, to purchase mainframe IBM computers in California for Iran'sMinistry of Agriculture, was temporarily disrupted by the Commerce Department'sOffice of Export Enforcement in 1993. The plan involved no fewer than 15front companies on three continents. Another scheme, exposed by New YorkNewsday this spring, was an attempt by a former President of MostazafanNew York, Manoucher Shafie, to deliver a lie detector machine to Iran'sPermanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. (Polygraph machinescannot 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 againstShafie was eventually dropped, because Commerce could not prove knew thecontents 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 tryingto buy botulinum toxins on behalf of Iran - the same toxins that were usedby Iraq to make an extremely lethal type of biological weapon. Mahallatioperates a series of trading companies out of an office suite located at516 Fifth Avenue in New York. One of those companies, the now defunct AlMakasseb General Trading, helped finance the 1993 IBM computer deal. Ithardly seems to be coincidence that Mahallati's brother was Iran's ambassadorto the U.N. in the 1980s.
The FBI alleges that the brother of Iran's current Ambassador, KamalKharazi, 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 unavailablebecause he and Mohammad Geramian, the foundation's director, were in ameeting).
Iranian exiles claim that Alavi is used by Iran's UN mission to channelfunds to a wide variety of propaganda and recruitment fronts, includingan Iranian television network in New York, a weekly newspaper publishedin Rockville, Maryland, an Iranian business center and monthly businessmagazine in New York. The center and magazine are located at the same 516Fifth Avenue office building as Mahallati's operation. They are run byAli 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 Foundationcharter, which stipulates that "the territory in which its operationsare principally to be conducted is the United States of America."In the past fifteen years, the foundation has sent money back to Iran andelsewhere, to support agencies of the Islamic Republic of Iran or its propagandagoals.
Among the recipients of Alavi's largesse is the Sharif University ofTechnology in Tehran, which has been used to train engineers for Iran'sarmaments industry and its nuclear program.
Since 1987, the foundation has distributed more than $400,000 to a varietyof state-run organizations in Iran, including the University of Tehran,Islamic Azad University of Karaj [owned by the Rafsanjani family], anda number of medical colleges. U.S. government investigators believe thatsome of this money was used to purchase gas chromatography and other equipmentin the United States which could have been used for Iran's chemical weaponsprograms. The Foundation also sent money to Iran's Red Crescent society,the organization listed as the final end-used of the deadly botulinum toxinsformer Alavi President Mohammad Mahalatti attempted to purchase in 1993.
Perhaps one of Alavi's most curious foreign donations is a regular $60,000annual contribution to Islamic Education Academy in Germany. This moneyhas ostensibly gone to finance an encyclopedia of Islamic thought, of whicha 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 theCenter for Islamic Studies at the University of Cologne, and was embarrassedwhen a reporter recently asked him about his connection to Mostazafan-NewYork. Initially he denied any connection to the Foundation, but when thereporter called back, Fallaturi kept changing his story. In a subsequentcall, 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 matterof public record, he acknowledged he had received more than $200,000 fromthe Foundation's Tehran-based director, Mohammad Pirayendeh, through theDresder Bank. (Pirayendeh is suspected by U.S. law enforcement officialsof involvement in arms procurement schemes on behalf of the Islamic Republic).
It is not known how Fallaturi used the $485,000 the tax records showhe received from Mostazafan from 1985-1991. However, German intelligenceofficials acknowledge that their country has become the center for Iran'sintelligence and technology procurement operations in Europe. Hit teamssent by Tehran to assassinate opponents of the regime regularly coordinatetheir activities with the Iranian embassy in Bonn and through a seriesof Islamic cultural centers in other German cities, which German intelligencereports have identified as centers of Iranian terrorism.
The Iranian government is operating freely in the United States undermany guises. Through the foundation, its subsidiaries, and a variety ofother front organizations operating on the orders of Iran's Permanent Missionto 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 lobbyCongressional offices. Its propaganda outlets make the voice of the IslamicRepublic the predominant source of news about Iran within the Iranian exilecommunity, through a vast broadcasting network that includes televisionand radio stations as well as dozens of publications.
Until now, the Clinton administration's trade embargo has barely madea dent in this Iranian government activity in the United States, althoughit 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 designated13 Iranian banks as "specially-designated nationals," which canno 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 commonlyused to refer to the Revolutionary Guards Corps (When Rafiq-doust was headof the Guards, he was also called the Minister of Sepah).
U.S. officials acknowledge there may be constitutional problems in pursuingorganizations such as Alavi that could be termed "religious."closing the Islamic Centers could be seen as a generalized attack on AmericanMuslims, while restricting the activities of a newspaper or televisionstation because it has received funding from an Iranian-government organizationcould be construed as a violation of freedom of speech.
Still, there would seem to be enough maneuvering room in the recentcounter-terrorism bill to allow Treasury and other agencies to close downthe Alavi Foundation and its very questionable Islamic education centers.The 1994 FBI report states that Iran has used Alavi to establish "covertsub-branches disguised as educational centers, mosques, and other centers."But until the United States government makes a coordinated effort to closedown Alavi, the hostile Islamic Republic will continue to maintain a strongpresence right in the very heard of the Great Satan.
Kenneth Timmerman is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracyin Iran (FDI). FDI is a private, non-profit corporation registered in theState of Maryland. FDI materials, including the FDI Newswire, are availablefree-of-charge via the Internet at http://www.iran.org/.