Iranian president repeats Holocaust denial

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The Independent Online

Iran has been plunged into a new diplomatic storm after its hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reiterated his belief that the Holocaust was "a myth".

In a televised speech yesterday, the populist conservative also repeated calls he made last week for Israel to be moved to Europe. The speech prompted a fresh round of outraged reaction across the world and a new warning from America that Iran should not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, suggested the Iranians should get another president.

Mr Ahmadinejad said: "They have fabricated a legend under the name 'massacre of the Jews' and they hold it higher than God himself, religion itself and the prophets themselves." Only two months ago he said that Israel should be "wiped off the map".

The comments come at a delicate time for Iran's negotiations with Europe, which is attempting to rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions. It avoided a referral to the UN Security Council in November but pressure from the US and the EU is still intense. In London, a Western diplomat said Mr Ahmadinejad's remarks "add to the perception that he is a complete headcase".

Mohammed Atrianfar, founder of Iran's reformist Sharq newspaper and a close ally of the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said: "This will make it harder for Iran to build trust with the international community over its nuclear programme. But what he says comes from his personal thinking and is not the stance of the state."

It is not clear if the President's remarks were made with the blessing of other senior figures like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In recent years, top officials have avoided inflammatory comments about Israel. "The Supreme Leader has not openly supported these remarks or even referred to them," said a Tehran-based analyst who did not want to be named. "Could Mr Ahmadinejad be taking a line from some other major figure and would the Leader see that as a personal challenge?"

Questioned in a suburb of Tehran, Iranians expressed support for the Palestinians but said the President should concentrate on domestic issues. "What will be achieved by statements like this?" asked Mohammed Karimi, 47. "We have social problems, a poor economy, corruption and high inflation. He should concentrate on those rather than make foreign crises."

The President has caused controversy at home and abroad since his inauguration in August. Apart from the diplomatic storm following his comments about Israel, he has fought with parliamentarians from his own faction over his choice of top cabinet posts. And senior ayatollahs are reported to view with concern his unorthodox religious views. Some analysts see his latest comments as an attempt to win influence among disaffected Muslims outside Iran.

It was not clear last night whether the President's outburst would affect plans by Britain, France and Germany to resume negotiations with Iran in the coming weeks over its nuclear programme, which the Iranians insist is peaceful. The German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Mr Ahmadinejad's remarks were "shocking". He added: "They may weigh on the chances for the negotiations on the so-called nuclear dossier."

The Foreign Office reiterated Britain's "unreserved condemnation" of Mr Ahmadinejad's comments, first made last week. "It is not the sort of rhetoric that one would expect from a civilised nation."