updated 1/15/2006 8:00:02 PM ET 2006-01-16T01:00:02

Iran said Sunday it would sponsor a conference to examine the scientific evidence supporting the Holocaust, an apparent next step in hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s campaign against Israel and a move likely to deepen Tehran’s international isolation.

Ahmadinejad already had called the Nazis’ World War II slaughter of 6 million European Jews a myth and said the Jewish state should be wiped off the map or moved to Germany or the United States.

Those remarks prompted a global outpouring of condemnation, and Tehran further raised international concern last week when it resumed what it called “research” at its uranium enrichment facility.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. organization that monitors nuclear proliferation, said Iran was resuming small-scale nuclear enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for atomic bombs.

That, in turn, prompted Washington and its allies to renew their push to take Iran before the U.N. Security Council for the possible imposition of sanctions.

The United States, its European allies and Japan believe Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies the charge and says its nuclear program is only for electricity generation.

Unknown when conference will be
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi did not disclose where or when the Holocaust conference would be held, nor would he say who would attend or what had prompted Tehran to sponsor it.

On Saturday, however, Ahmadinejad urged the West to be sufficiently open-minded to allow a free international debate on the Holocaust. Asefi adopted that theme.

“It is a strange world. It is possible to discuss everything except the Holocaust. The Foreign Ministry plans to hold a conference on the scientific aspect of the issue to discuss and review its repercussions,” Asefi told reporters.

Earlier this month, the Association of Muslim Journalists, a hard-line group, proposed holding a similar conference, but Asefi said he was not aware of the association’s wishes. He said the conference he announced was planned and supported by the ministry.

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., a holocaust survivor who was born in Budapest, Hungary, has said he understood Iran was considering a conference that would call into question evidence that the Nazis conducted a mass murder of European Jews during World War II.

Strained relations started in 1979
Israel and Iran had good relations until the 1979 Islamic revolution led by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Israel had backed the shah, apparently prompting Khomeini to term it the “Little Satan.”

Ahmadinejad has adopted rhetoric reminiscent of Khomeini, seemingly trying to breathe life back into the waning revolutionary spirit in the country, whose residents are not traditionally anti-Jewish.

Before the revolution about 100,000 Jews lived in Iran, but three-fourths fled during the upheaval.

Ahmadinejad, who took office in August, caused an international outcry in October by calling Israel a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the map.”

Leaders around the world also condemned him after he called the Nazi slaughter of Jews during World War II a “myth.” He later said that if the Holocaust did happen, then Israel should be moved to Germany or North America, rather than making Palestinians suffer by losing their land to atone for crimes committed by Europeans.

Since the Islamic revolution, Israel has considered Iran a primary and existential threat. As Tehran’s nuclear program has moved forward, the Israelis — who have nuclear weapons but do not to admit possessing such an arsenal — have refused to rule out using military force to destroy the Iranian program.

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