Iranian President insists 'Israel cannot continue to live'

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The Independent Online

For a man who meets the press so rarely, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is anything but media shy.

At a press conference for foreign journalists yesterday, only his third since winning Iran's election last June, the Iranian President basked in the attention, grinning at the banks of photographers, swapping banter with reporters and eventually arguing with the local press over who should be allowed to answer questions.

He was sitting in front of a surreal backdrop, which showed a child's outstretched hand ending in a divine white glow from which fluttered several doves, set against a photograph of a huge pro-regime demonstration in Tehran. It was not clear if the glow was meant to signify world peace or the beneficence of nuclear technology.

Just days before Friday's UN Security Council deadline expires for Iran to end its uranium enrichment programme or face possible sanctions, the firebrand President was in expansive and defiant mood. He said Iran was not frightened of sanctions, threatened to quit the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and insisted Tehran would not make any concessions on its programme that could eventually result in the production of a nuclear weapon.

When a reporter for a US network asked if there were any concessions that would make Iran consider halting its uranium enrichment, he laughed and replied: "What concession could the international community make that would make your country give up its sovereignty?"

The theme of Western double standards played prominently in Mr Ahmadinejad's comments, particularly when he spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His comments appeared to be aimed at Muslims around the world, whom he has courted assiduously during his nine months in power with strongly worded attacks on Israel and support for the Palestinians.

"At the time of the Second World War, anti-Semitism was rife in Europe," he said. "If you support the Jews, what was that all about? You made Europe unsafe for the Jews and they sought sanctuary in Palestine. Now they live in a land that does not belong to them."

Mr Ahmadinejad has drawn fierce criticism in the West for comments last October that cast doubt on the Holocaust and for saying that Israel should be "wiped off the map". Yesterday, he said: "We say that this fake regime [Israel] cannot logically continue to live."

He also addressed himself directly to the people of Germany and Austria, saying that they too were the victims of a historical injustice. "German people today are still making amends for a war they had no part of," he said. "Three generations later, what have the German people done to deserve this?"

German politicians have demanded that Iran be barred from playing in the World Cup in Germany this summer as a punishment for Mr Ahmadinejad's earlier comments about the Holocaust. Iran's first game will be played in Nuremberg.

Israel - which is the only Middle Eastern state to possess nuclear weapons - reacted strongly to Mr Ahmadinejad's comments. Without naming him, President Moshe Katsav said yesterday on the country's annual Holocaust memorial day: "I call on the Western world not to stand silently in the face of the nations that are trying to acquire nuclear weapons and preach for the destruction of the state of Israel."

The Israeli Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, said: "Of all the threats we face, Iran is the biggest. The world must not wait. It must do everything necessary on a diplomatic level in order to stop its nuclear activity ... Since Hitler we have not faced such a threat."