The move to proceed with the controversial conference, likely to deepen Tehran's international isolation, came as Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, raised concerns with Iranian officials over an exhibition of cartoons about the Holocaust.

Ahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has already called the Nazis' Second World War slaughter of six million European Jews a myth and said that 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.

Hamid Reza Asefi, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, said on Sunday that because the Holocaust was a scientific issue, both opponents and proponents of the existence of the Holocaust could participate.

"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," he told reporters. "I have visited the Nazi camps in Eastern Europe. I think it is exaggerated," Asefi said.

Asefi did not disclose where the Holocaust conference would be held, or who would attend it. Iran first raised the possibility of the conference in January.

Annan brought up the exhibit that opened in response to Muslim outrage over the Prophet Muhammad caricatures in talks on Saturday with Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, said Ahmad Fawzi, Annan's spokesman.

Annan told Mottaki that "we should avoid anything that incites hatred" according to Fawzi.

The 'Little Satan'

Ahmadinejad has campaigned
against Israel since he took office

The Holocaust cartoon exhibit opened last month at Tehran's Caricature House, with 204 entries from Iran and abroad.

The cartoons were submitted after the exhibit's co-sponsor, the Hamshahri newspaper, said it wanted to test the West's tolerance for drawings about the Nazis' mass murder of European Jews during the Second World War. The entries on display came from nations including the United States, Indonesia and Turkey.

Ahmadinejad has waged a campaign against Israel since he took office in August last year, adopting rhetoric reminiscent of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1979 Islamic revolution. Israel had backed the shah, apparently prompting Khomeini to term it the "Little Satan."