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Ahmadinejad's Unwelcome Christmas Address on British TV

With less than six months to go before the Iranian presidential elections, Channel 4 handed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad what could be one of his biggest foreign policy achievements by allowing him to address the people of the UK on Christmas Day. At no time since the revolution in Iran, or even before, has an Iranian leader been given such a high-profile public platform in one of the most important countries of the Western world. Ahmadinejad's Christmas message will now be used by right-wingers all over Iran to prove that his controversial foreign policy stance works and therefore must be continued.

Channel 4 is a private company. Therefore its actions do not necessarily represent the government of Great Britain, which actually complained about the broadcast.

However, what the British government should realize is that it is very possible that Channel 4's actions could severely damage relations between London and the people of Iran. To them, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one of the least popular presidents they have had. His economic policies have led the country into one of its biggest crises. At the same time, Ahmadinejad's provocative foreign policy and statements have brought sanctions upon their country. He has also damaged the image of Iran, which, contrary to Ahmadinejad's behavior, is a tolerant country. Iranians feel this every time they travel. These days, a Somali or Congolese passport is welcomed abroad more than an Iranian one. Citizens of Iran can only enter 12 countries without a visa, and -- amazingly enough -- Lebanon is not one of them, despite billions of dollars of help to Hezbollah by the government of Iran. In contrast, citizens of war-ravaged Somalia and Congo can travel to 14 countries without a visa.

Channel 4 could easily have picked another Iranian figure for its Christmas message. Iran is not short of brilliant minds and speakers. A far better choice would have been Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize-winning Iranian human rights activist who has just had her office shut down in Tehran by Ahmadinejad's government. Her message for human rights and justice, for which she has worked all her life, would have been far more befitting the message of Christmas and the beliefs of the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ.

By giving Ahmadinejad such a high-profile platform, the people of Iran could be forgiven for thinking that Great Britain supports their president. What Channel 4 perhaps did not realize is that Iran's history is full of unwelcome British intervention in Iranian politics, and Iranian people are very sensitive to anything seen as British meddling in their affairs. The 1953 joint MI6 and CIA operation to overthrow the democratically elected Mossadegh government is one of them.

Prior to that, in 1941, the British government, alongside the Soviet Union, took part in another regime change operation in Iran. This time, it was to overthrow Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty. There are also numerous lessons in Iranian school books about how British companies abused their power in Iran by doing shady deals with corrupt officials from the Qajar dynasty which ruled Iran from 1794 to 1925. There is so much suspicion against Britain, particularly England -- they distinguish between Welsh, Scots, and the English -- that Iranians use the expression "it is the work of the English" every time they suspect a conspiracy. This coin phrase was invented by a popular Iranian TV character called Dai Jan Napoleon (Uncle Napoleon), who starred in his own TV show in the 1970s.

Many Iranian people believe that a powerful Iran would be against British interests in the Persian Gulf, especially London's close relationship with Saudi Arabia. While Ahmadinejad points the finger of blame to Israel, many Iranians believe that Saudi Arabia is a much bigger danger to their country. It was Riyadh that financed Saddam's invasion of Iran in 1980. Therefore it serves Saudi interests that Ahmadinejad is in power, because otherwise Iran may be welcomed back to the international community, thus reducing Riyadh's influence in Western capitals. People in Iran also believe that a provocative Iranian president is good for UK arms sales to such countries.

Iran's relationship with London has always been charged. As well as facts, there are and always will be suspicion felt towards England by the people of Iran. However, London can do much to repair this relationship by helping the people of Iran move forward. One way would be to help the people of Iran break out of isolation by giving a stronger voice to moderate Iranians. Channel 4 would have done a much better job if it had studied the charged relationship between the two countries before embarking on the controversial decision of allowing Ahmadinejad to speak on the most important day of the year on the British calendar. We can only hope that the channel's owners have learned from their mistakes and that next year they will allow a more uniting figure to address their country.