TEHRAN — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday dismissed the Holocaust as a "myth" and renewed his call for the transfer of Israel from the Middle East to Europe or North America.
"They have created a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religions and the prophets," Ahmadinejad declared in a speech in Sistan-Baluchistan province that was broadcast on state television.
The Iranian president said that the Palestinian people should not have to suffer even if Europeans committed a crime against the Jewish people.
"Why do you want to force Israel on the holy land of Palestine by killing Muslims?" he asked. "Give a piece of your land in Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska so the Jews can create their own state."
Since his election in June, the hard-line president has made a series of blunt statements against Israel, calling in October for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map."
Last week, he stirred controversy by indirectly raising doubts about the Holocaust, stating that "some European countries insist on saying that during World War II, Hitler burned millions of Jews."
Ahmadinejad's latest comments drew swift criticism Wednesday in Jerusalem, Washington and Europe, where Britain, Germany and France have taken the lead in pursuing negotiations to try to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev accused Ahmadinejad of acting outside international law. "The repeated outrageous remarks by the Iranian president unfortunately indicate the real mind-set of the ruling clique," Regev said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the remarks were "incomprehensible" and called for the European Union to issue a formal condemnation. In Germany, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said of the Iranian leader: "His comments and statements only underscore why it is so important that the international community continue to work together to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons."
Ahmadinejad, a former Tehran mayor, won the June presidential election in a landslide with the help of populist slogans and support from religious fundamentalists as well as a broad cross-section of the economically disadvantaged. His election ended an eight-year reform government that was often hampered by the nation's conservative religious leadership.
Even before he took office, Ahmadinejad had repeated Iran's determination to develop what it calls a peaceful nuclear program but that the West fears could lead to the development of nuclear weapons. He reiterated that stance Wednesday.
"Those who have made and are still manufacturing nuclear and chemical weapons and use them against humanity have no right to deprive Iran," he said.
Several analysts said Wednesday that Ahmadinejad's comments on the Holocaust seemed aimed at shoring up support among his followers at home and staking out a claim of leadership in the region as a voice against Israel.
"Ahmadinejad has no support among the educated in Iran, and through his extremism tries to establish himself as a champion and revolutionary symbol for the base of support that he has," said Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University. "But he does that at a cost to our national interest."
Glen Rangwala of the Center of International Studies at the University of Cambridge said the speech appeared to be Ahmadinejad's effort to "outbid his rivals for political prominence, not just within Iran but within the whole Muslim Middle East."
"Earlier this year, you had both Bahrain and Qatar making closer ties to Israel, as part of what their governments are trying to do in the near future," Rangwala said. "What Ahmadinejad is doing is essentially appealing over the heads of these leaders to their populations, saying that he now is the true leader of the anti-Israeli campaign in the gulf area."
Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist politician, said Ahmadinejad made such extremist comments to draw attention to the international arena and distract Iranians from domestic problems.
"By making such inflammatory remarks he is able to distract people from the fact that they are choking from pollution in Tehran and that the economy is at a standstill," Tajzadeh said.
One of Ahmadinejad's former colleagues on the Tehran City Council, however, said the Iranian leader truly believed what he said, as do many in the Muslim world.
"This is a scenario created by the West to justify their strategic interests to take part of Palestine," Amir Reza Vaezi-Ashtiani said of Israel's existence. "If it wasn't true, the West wouldn't hurt so bad and react so strongly."
Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem, Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin and John Daniszewski in London contributed to this report.