Md. Islamic center's owner targeted for alleged ties to Iran

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

Federal authorities served notices initiating forfeiture proceedings Friday to a 26-year-old Islamic school and community center in Potomac whose landlord is alleged to have ties to the Iranian government.

Three armed U.S. marshals delivered the notices to the Islamic Education Center, a mosque, school and community center that serves members of the District's Iranian community. The center, in a leafy residential neighborhood in Potomac, is not accused of wrongdoing but operates on property owned by a New York foundation that is allegedly used as a front by Iran.

Two marshals entered the school about 9:30 a.m. Friday as children played in a large hall set up for an open house planned for later in the day. The marshals drove to a white brick house next door and taped a manila envelope with the same notice to the front door.

Members of the center's community said that they were surprised, condemned the move and denied any connection with Iran's government.

"It is very unfair," said Esmat Watson, who was coming to Friday prayers. She called the move "politics" and said that Muslims "have been under attack for a long time."

A parent of two children at the school said that he doesn't think the school has ties to the Iranian government. "We believe everything is peace," said Waheed Baderzada. He said that every religion and every country has had people who were violent, but that "here, we never have any issues like that."

But several others in the Iranian community in the District -- most of whose members immigrated to the area after the 1979 revolution against the shah and are opposed to the country's current government -- said that whether or not the center has formal ties to Iran, it is generally perceived as being sympathetic to the Islamic government of the country.

The Islamic Education Center formally opened in 1983, and tax records show it received $6 million from the Mostazafan Foundation of New York, which changed its name to Alavi in 1992.

In a 2007 tax form, the center said it "uses the facilities provided by Alavi Foundation at no charge." It "organizes lectures, seminars and sermons in response to public needs, religious holidays, commemorative occasions and cultural events," and a primary and secondary school educates more than 150 students.

A man at the Islamic Education Center who said he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the school would not reveal his name and declined to answer questions. He directed inquiries to the New York-based lawyers for the Alavi Foundation, which U.S. authorities say they have suspected of being a possible Iranian front for decades. A call to the foundation's attorney, John D. Winter, was not returned Friday.

Residents near the school said it is gracious in its limited interactions with the neighborhood. When streets were clogged with parked cars during a recent holiday, the mosque delivered fruit and nut baskets to houses afterward with notes of apology, neighbors said.

"It's been a peaceful coexistence," said Lisa Hall, who lives down Jeb Stuart Road from the school's back entrance.

She said that her main interaction with the center had been shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it held an open house for the community and talked about tolerance with a nearby synagogue.

None of the properties has been formally seized. Rather, prosecutors are starting the process of forfeiture, which a court must recognize. Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office, said on Thursday that the proceedings would not affect tenants and occupants of the properties.

Prosecutors filed a civil complaint in federal court seeking the forfeiture of hundreds of millions of dollars in assets held by the Alavi Foundation and another company allegedly used as a front by Iran. Besides the school in Potomac, the complaint also targets a Manhattan skyscraper, Islamic centers in California, Queens, N.Y., and Houston, and about 100 acres in the Catharpin area in Prince William County.

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