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Thu 18 Dec 2008 01:52 AM

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US moves to seize US assets of Iranian bank's 'front'

New-York based unit owns 40% in 36-storey tower on Fifth Avenue, says Justice Dept.

US authorities Wednesday designated New York-based Assa Corp. as a "front company" of an Iranian state-owned bank linked to weapons proliferation, and moved to seize its assets.

The US Treasury said that Assa had funnelled funds to Bank Melli, branded by Washington and the European Union as a "proliferator" linked to Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

"This scheme to use a front company set up by Bank Melli - a known proliferator - to funnel money from the United States to Iran is yet another example of Iran's duplicity," said the Treasury's under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Stuart Levey.

"The dangerous mix of proliferation and deception has led the United States, the European Union and Australia to designate Bank Melli, and the United Nations to issue a call for vigilance with respect to all Iranian banks," he said in a statement.

The Treasury charged that the bank provided financial services, including opening letters of credit and maintaining accounts, for Iranian front companies and entities engaged in proliferation activities.

In addition, Bank Melli has facilitated the purchase of sensitive materials utilized by Iran's nuclear and missile industries, and has handled transactions for other designated Iranian entities, including Bank Sepah, Defense Industries Organization, and the Shahid Hammat Industrial Group, the statement said.

The US Justice Department said separately Wednesday that it was pursuing legal action to seize ASSA's assets in New York.

They included a 40 percent interest in a 36-story office tower at the upscale Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, New York.

"In the forfeiture complaint, the United States seeks to forfeit all right, title and interest of Assa Corporation, Assa Company Limited, and Bank Melli in 650 Fifth Avenue Company, including 650 Fifth Avenue's interest in the building," a statement by the department said.

The United States also sought to seize funds that were seized from Assa Corp.'s bank accounts, it said.

Assa Corp's interest in 650 Fifth Avenue Company was "forfeitable as property involved in money laundering and a conspiracy to commit money laundering," it said.

Washington has steadily upped sanctions against Iranian entities in hopes of pressuring Tehran to pull back on its nuclear program - which the US says is aimed at developing nuclear weapons - and to halt its alleged support for groups Washington has labelldesignated terrorist, including Lebanon's Hezbollah and armed Palestinian groups.

Iran, a leading OPEC oil producer, denies it is seeking nuclear weapons and says its nuclear program aims to provide energy for its growing population when its reserves of fossil fuels run out.

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