Iran said Sunday that it intends to hold a conference this fall questioning the extent of the Holocaust.
The announcement coincided with a visit by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who criticized the plan. It rankled Israel officials, some of whom have called Iran the biggest threat to the Jews since Nazi Germany, and it further dismayed Iranian Jews here.
While the Iranian immigrants expressed concern about what the conference - coming, as it does, after a long line of vitriolic attacks on Israel and statements minimizing or denying the Holocaust - would mean both for Israel and for fellow Jews still in Iran, they also conveyed consternation at the effect such stances have on Iran.
They insist that their former country is not filled with Holocaust deniers, Jew haters or even masses wishing for Israel's destruction. The leadership's outlandish statements, they said, would only hurt Iran in the long run.
On Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters in Teheran that "God willing, a conference on the Holocaust will be held in the autumn. The Holocaust is not a sacred issue that one can't touch... I have visited the Nazi camps in Eastern Europe. I think it is exaggerated."
He said both opponents and proponents of the existence of the Holocaust could participate in the conference.
Annan implicitly criticized Iran for its attitude to the Holocaust, which has evoked widespread international condemnation.
"I think the tragedy of the Holocaust is an undeniable historical fact, and we should really accept that fact and teach people what happened in World War II and ensure it is never repeated," he told reporters after meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev termed the positions of Iran's leadership on the Holocaust "obscene ideas." He also reiterated his displeasure over an exhibition of Holocaust-related cartoons, which was ostensibly held in response to Muslim outrage over the Prophet Muhammad caricatures, in talks Saturday with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, said Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi.
Annan told Mottaki that "we should avoid anything that incites hatred," according to Fawzi.
Several Israelis born in Iran condemned the cartoons and conference much more vociferously in conversations with The Jerusalem Post. But they also stressed their conviction that these views do not represent average Iranians.
"I think we should separate between the regime and the people, because they're not the same," said Mayer Saidian, 29, of Jerusalem, a Farsi translator who left Iran when he was 11. "I remember my friends. They weren't like that. They weren't denying the Holocaust. It makes me sad that this is what the world will see. I would rather that they wouldn't say Iran but the Islamic regime, because this isn't the Iran that I know."
Saidian reported that among the Iranian people, he had never witnessed anti-Semitism.
Nati Toobian, however, maintained that there had always been some anti-Semitism - on the level of name-calling - in Iran, which intensified after the revolution and particularly since Ahmadinejad's election.
But he said that even so, the people haven't embraced Holocaust denial: "This is the current government of Iran, and it would be a mistake to say that the whole of Iran denies the Holocaust."
He pointed to Iranian journalists - critics of Israel - who live abroad and can write more freely than their colleagues within the Islamic state.
"They clearly distinguish between the crimes of the Zionist regime and what the Jewish people have gone through in the Holocaust," he said. Whatever Israel might be doing, they have stated that "it doesn't give Ahmadinejad the right to deny the Holocaust." These journalists have also decried his positions as endangering Iran's interests.
Toobian explained: "They say this man's nuts, [that] whatever he says about the Holocaust hurts Iran's image as a civilized country."
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian analyst who now lives in Tel Aviv, said Ahmadinejad's comments made him "feel bad for the Iranian people because it's destroying the image of Iran even more... which means more unemployment and more misery for the Iranian people."
He related that in communications he has with Iranian Muslims, "They say we're not like this. They're all apologetic about what is happening. They shake their heads in disbelief at what Ahmadinejad's doing. The Iranian people elected Ahmadinejad for the purpose of elimination - but the elimination of unemployment and corruption, and not Israel. I hope he doesn't forget."
AP contributed to this report.