x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

US moves to seize building of Iranian bank

The Bush administration has tightens sanctions against companies alleged to be involved in Iran's nuclear programme.

New York // With only weeks left in office, the Bush administration has tightened its sanctions against companies alleged to be involved in Iran's nuclear programme by launching moves to seize a New York office tower it says is part-owned by the Tehran government. The US Treasury said on Wednesday that Iranian-controlled Bank Melli was funnelling money from the United States to Iran through a New York-based company called ASSA Corp. The US said ASSA was created by Bank Melli to hold its interest in a building located at 650 Fifth Avenue and that its construction had been partly financed by a Bank Melli loan. In a related action, the US Justice Department filed a civil action to forfeit ASSA's interest in the building but not to interfere in any businesses or tenants in the 36-storey, granite and glass building. "This scheme to use a front company set up by Bank Melli - a known [nuclear] proliferator - to funnel money from the US to Iran is yet another example of Iran's duplicity," said Stuart Levey, the Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. Bank Melli was designated for sanctions by the US last year and, after much US urging, by the European Union this year. The United Nations, meanwhile, has called for member countries to exercise "scrutiny" over its activities. The UN sanctions also included a clause calling for "vigilance" by member states over the movement in their territories of people directly associated with or supporting Iran's nuclear activities. In the past, the US has expressed concern in particular over links between some Dubai-based companies and Iran. The US has led global efforts to stop Iran's nuclear activities, including sanctions on several Iranian banks and businesses and the Revolutionary Guards. Last year, the US branded the Revolutionary Guards a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and imposed sanctions on firms controlled by it. Tehran claims its programme is for peaceful purposes but some experts believe it is coming close to nuclear weapon capability. The US Treasury said Bank Melli "provides financial services, including opening letters of credit and maintaining accounts, for Iranian front companies and entities engaged in proliferation activities". The US claimed that ASSA co-owned the Fifth Avenue tower through a partnership with the Alavi Foundation, an Iranian non-profit group. According to the US Justice Department, the tower was built about 30 years ago by the Pahlavi Foundation, formed by the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the foundation changed its name to Bonyad Mostazafan before changing it again to the Alavi Foundation. Barack Obama, the president-elect, takes office next month amid concern by opponents of Tehran that he might dilute the pressure. But he appears prepared to continue sanctions while also seeming more open to diplomatic efforts to engage Iran. When the EU sanctions against Bank Melli were announced this year, no Iranian political leaders were named to keep open the possibility of dialogue, according to diplomats. sdevi@thenational.ae