DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran on Saturday criticized a U.S. government move to seize a Manhattan skyscraper owned largely by a foundation that promotes its language and Islamic culture, saying this violated the right to religious freedom in the United States.
According to a court document filed in New York on Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to distribute proceeds from the sale of the Fifth Avenue high-rise to families affected by alleged Iranian-aided attacks, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut.
The settlement marks the latest turn in a long-running battle over the 36-storey building owned chiefly by Alavi Foundation, a non-profit Persian and Islamic cultural center.
Iran's foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said the decision "lacks legal justification and negates America's commitment to protecting its citizens' religious freedom."
"Confiscation of the properties of an independent charity organization raises doubt about the credibility of U.S. justice," she was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.
The latest row came as U.S. President Barack Obama signed a law on Friday barring an Iranian diplomat from serving as an envoy at the United Nations over his role in the 1979-81 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But they are unlikely to significantly affect the current nuclear talks between Tehran and world powers, including the United States.
Iran's moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, has strongly pursued a deal with the West in order to escape ruinous international sanctions imposed on his country.
In a 2009 lawsuit, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office claimed the Alavi Foundation was controlled by Iran, citing the two minority owners as Assa Corp and Assa Co Ltd, both shell companies financed by Iran's national Bank Melli. And, last year, a federal court ruled that the skyscraper was subject to government forfeiture for "shielding and concealing Iranian assets" in violation of U.S. sanctions law.
But the Iranian official flatly denied any links between her country and the Alavi Foundation: "These charges are nothing new. They are merely concocted to put pressure and chase political aims."
Alavi Foundation and the smaller stake-holder Assa are both expected to appeal the U.S. verdict.
(Reporting by Mehrdad Balali; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)