Robert Tait

Teheran: Iran has announced that it would stage a conference to question the authenticity of the Holocaust, a move certain to stir international anger.

The statement follows a series of inflammatory remarks by Iran's hawkish President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has described the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis in the Second World War as a myth and called for Israel to be ''wiped off the map''. He has also suggested an alternative Jewish state should be set up in Europe or Alaska.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the proposed conference would examine the Holocaust's ''scientific aspects and its repercussions''. The description echoes Mr Ahmadinejad's characterisation of Holocaust denial earlier this month as a ''scientific debate''.

It is not clear who will attend. But following a chorus of anti-Zionist rhetoric since the President was elected last June, the announcement will trigger suspicions that the aim is to deny that the Holocaust happened.

Last month, Mr Ahmadinejad dismissed it as a concoction invented to justify Israel's existence in the heart of the Muslim world.

Remarks condemned

His comments drew widespread condemnation. At a meeting with United States President George W. Bush last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, described Mr Ahmadinejad's position on the Holocaust as unacceptable.

At a rare news conference on Sunday, however, the Iranian President was unrepentant. He described Ms Merkel and Mr Bush as terrorists and war criminals, who would soon be put on trial for their support of Israel.

Describing the Holocaust as a question that had to be cleared up by scholars, he added: ''My question was very clear. On the pretext of the killing of Jews in Europe, are they supporting the aggression and massacres [of Israel]? They will not intimidate me. Instead, they have to answer me. If you started this killing of the Jews, you have to make amends yourself. This is very clear. It's based on laws and legal considerations. If you committed a mistake or a crime, why should others pay for it? Those who murdered [the Jews] should permit them to go back to their own fatherlands. That should be the end of it. You shouldn't say that nobody is permitted to say anything about this.''

Official policy

Mr Ahmadinejad initially provoked an international storm by calling for Israel's removal for the map last October.

His remarks repeated what had been official Iranian policy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Support for the Palestinian cause is a central pillar in the ideology of Iran's Islamic regime, which regards Israel's existence as an affront to Muslims.

However, Mr Ahmadinejad has surpassed previous Iranian leaders in consistently attacking what he sees as the intellectual and moral basis for Israel's existence.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005