Iran’s president yesterday dismissed the Holocaust as “a myth,” bringing swift international condemnation and raising fresh questions about the future of diplomatic efforts to stop Tehran from getting nuclear weapons.
The remarks are the latest in a string of provocative comments by the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since his surprise election in June, including a call in October for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”
The Iranian leader previously has questioned the Nazi campaign that killed an estimated 6 million Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, but his speech yesterday in the southeastern city of Zahedan was his most explicit to date and argued that Europeans made up the story to justify stealing Arab lands for a Jewish state.
The Europeans “have invented a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religions and the prophets,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a speech carried on state television.
“If somebody in their country questions God, nobody says anything. But if somebody denies the myth of the massacre of Jews, the Zionist loudspeakers and the governments in the pay of Zionism will start to scream,” he added.
The United States, Israel, the European Union and several leading European powers denounced the comments.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the speech “outrageous and reprehensible,” adding, “All it does is further isolate the Iranian government from the international community and, I would expect, from the Iranian people.”
In Germany, where denying the Holocaust is a crime, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the comments “shocking” and said they could harm delicate talks under way between Iran and EU powers Germany, France and Britain to head off a confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear programs.
“I cannot conceal that this encumbers bilateral relations, as well as the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program,” he said.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the comments underscore the danger the Islamic regime in Iran poses.
“We hope that these remarks will serve as a wake-up call to people who still harbor illusions as to the nature of the regime in Tehran,” Mr. Regev said.
Mr. Ahmadinejad also insisted that Iran would never give up its right to what he called a peaceful nuclear-energy program.
The Bush administration thinks Iran is secretly trying to obtain nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has voted to refer the Iran program to the U.N. Security Council for any sanctions if the EU negotiations fail.
Iran and the three EU powers were to meet Dec. 21 in Austria — another country where denying the Holocaust is a crime — for another round of talks. An IAEA spokeswoman said the overall negotiations are still on track, but that meeting was much in doubt yesterday.
Mr. McCormack said Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments “certainly raise questions about the intentions and true nature of the Iranian government,” but that it would be up to the three EU powers to decide whether they could “usefully engage” with Iran.
A longtime religious hard-liner and the appointed mayor of Tehran when he won election, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s first few months in office have been marked by a string of controversies.
He gave a belligerent and poorly received address at the U.N. General Assembly summit in September, and repeatedly has questioned Israel’s right to exist in the heart of the Islamic Middle East.
His victory was seen by many as the confirmation of the hard-liners’ seizure of all the levers of powers in Tehran, but he is not without domestic critics.
However, conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme spiritual leader and ultimate political authority, has refused to rein in the president.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on background, said a pattern of harsh rhetoric and threats has emerged with Mr. Ahmadinejad.
“This is not an accident or a slip of the tongue,” the official said. “This is what he and this government actually believe, and that makes it all the more troubling.”