Price of Terror
The Fight Over Iran’s New York City Skyscraper
Seized by the U.S. government, 650 Fifth Avenue will soon be sold, with the proceeds going to victims of Iranian terror—unless an Iranian appeal is successful.
A thousand victims of Iranian terrorism await the sale of the $500 million Fifth Avenue office tower whose lobby features a huge flat-screen TV that happened to be showing President Obama’s press conference on the big nuke deal on Wednesday afternoon.
“President Obama: Iran deal meets national security interest,” read the news zipper across the bottom of the screen.
This 36-story, 380,000-square-foot building at 650 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was originally built by a foundation controlled by the shah of Iran. Majority ownership passed to a foundation controlled by the new Iranian government after the Islamic revolution in 1979. The other new owners were a bank and what the courts describe as a shell company.
Judge Katherine Forrest ruled that all the owners on paper were in fact controlled by the Iranian government.
That made the property liable to seizure by the U.S. government and subject to claims by the many terror victims who have filed suit against Iran. The Iranian owners have appealed the ruling.
In the meantime, the building has been placed in receivership with a court-appointed overseer. A security guard who stood watch in the lobby on Wednesday had no doubt about the building’s present owner.
“The U.S. government,” he said.
Unless the matter takes an unexpected turn, the building will soon be put up for sale by the U.S. Marshals. The money will then be divvied up among more than 20 groups of terror victims who have secured judgments against the rogue nation.
They include the families who lost loved ones in the two 1983 bombings in Beirut, one in April that killed 17 Americans at the U.S. Embassy, the other in October that killed 241 at the U.S. Marines barracks.
According to the court papers, the embassy bombing was carried out by Hezbollah, which was funded and directed by Iranian intelligence. The dead included 20-year-old Marine Corporal Robert McMaugh, who was known to give flowers to women who worked at the embassy.
He presented a red rose to one of them moments before a suicide 2,000-pound car bomb tore through the four-story building.
McMaugh’s fellow Marine guards dug in the rubble for 45 minutes before they found him.
“His head was smashed like a pancake, real flat, real long,” one later testified. “Both his legs were broken…both arms or shoulders or whatever and had a steel rod going through the back of his chest.”
McMaugh was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A Marine named Ronnie Tumolo soon after went to visit his grave. Tumolo had a map but was unable to find the grave after walking around for half an hour in a rainstorm.
“I finally said out loud—luckily there was nobody there to see this—‘Bob, where in the hell are you?’” Tumolo testified. “And I happened to look down between my feet, and there is this little plastic 3-by-5 grave marker. I was standing right on top of his grave. It was eerie, but it made me feel like I had done something for him. I think, you know, up there he’s looking down.”
Tumolo returned to duty in Beirut. He was playing softball with a group of other Marines on October 23 when a “red dog” call came over the radio.
“‘Red dog’ meant that something really, really bad had happened,” he testified.
According to court papers, Iranian intelligence had sent a message to the Iranian ambassador to Syria the previous month, instructing him to arrange “a spectacular action against the United States Marines.” The ambassador in turn contacted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which met with Hezbollah to concoct a plan.
On the appointed morning, Hezbollah hijacked a water delivery truck that was bound for the barracks. A similar truck containing a gigantic bomb took its place.
“The truck was determined by Iranian military engineers to have an appropriate size and weight to crash through a barbed wire emplacement, fit between two sandbagged sentry posts, penetrate an iron fence gate, climb over a sewer pipe obstruction, move through a sandbag inner barrier into the passenger entry hallway, and enter the center lobby of the Marine barracks building,” court papers say.
The truck did just that.
“The resulting explosion was the largest non-nuclear explosion that had ever been detonated, equivalent of 15,000 to 21,000 pounds of TNT,” the court papers note. “The four-story Marine barracks in which the bomb was detonated was completely destroyed; 241 service members were killed, and many others were severely injured.”
The death certificates all listed the same cause.
Some of the families joined in the subsequent lawsuit against Iran. Others sought to be included later but were barred from doing so by the court.
The present legal action targeting 650 Fifth Avenue and more than $1 billion in other assets also does not include the thousands of Americans who were killed or maimed with weapons supplied by Iran to Iranian-trained and -bankrolled operatives during the long Iraq war.
But even so, more than 1,000 victims of the earlier attacks are waiting for the sale of that building on golden Fifth Avenue, just up from Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Not that it is about the money for these ever changed souls.
Court papers quote one woman who lost her mother and father during the Holocaust and her husband in the embassy bombing as saying, “I didn’t let the Germans pay me for killing my parents, I’m not going to let the Iranians pay me for killing my husband.” She agreed to join the suit only after it was arranged for any money to go into a trust.
A man who lost his son in the embassy bombing said in court papers, “I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be part of any lawsuit of any kind. I always believed that if I was right I would win my own battle, and if it looked to be necessary I would go at it tooth and nail.”
He added, “It’s a shame, a terrible shame, that people such as those sued in this suit cannot personally be put through the same horrors, the same loss of loved ones, that they put us through. And they laugh in our faces. That is why I became part of this pursuit of justice. I am 81 years of age and my hope has nothing to do with money. My hope is to see the world know what beasts these people really are.”
A surviving embassy worker named Beth Samuel said in court papers, ”Maybe this will acknowledge the fact that this happened to us, that people lost their lives, families were torn apart, all of us were traumatized for the rest of our lives in certain ways.”
Another embassy survivor, Rebecca McCullough, said, “I think if Iran wants to rejoin or really be a part of the family of states, it needs to account for this period in its life when it did these horrible things…It needs to make amends, and it needs to apologize, and it needs to promise never to do it again. Because they intended to kill every one of us in that building.”
Thirty-two years after the attack on the embassy building, McCullough is among the claimants who are seeking more than money from the sale of the office tower at 650 Fifth Avenue.
The appeal was pending as the big TV in the lobby was showing Obama’s press conference about the deal with Iran, which is aimed at keeping the Iranians from getting a bomb far bigger than even the fake water truck that flattened the Marine barracks.
But there was not even talk of Iran taking responsibility for its deeds, much less making amends for the decades-long series of horrors that began moments after an ill-fated young Marine gave a woman at the embassy a red rose.