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The bazaar at Tajrish in northern Tehran, normally teeming with bargain hunters, is eerily quiet and stall-holders are glued to "Barareh Nights."

This comic soap opera may be set about 70 years ago in the little village of Barareh, but Iranian viewers see its corrupt councilors, rigged elections and vocal women's rights group as a microcosm of Iran today.

Barareh even "enriches" its staple foodstuff, peas, in a clear parallel with Iran's disputed uranium enrichment program, that Washington says is aimed at developing atomic weapons.

Barareh even "enriches" its staple foodstuff, peas, in a clear parallel with Iran's disputed uranium enrichment program, that Washington says is aimed at developing atomic weapons.

"This show is just beautiful. The whole Islamic Republic is right here," said Ahmad Eslami, joining a huddle of greengrocers round their television set.

The only person to actually deserve a handout, a well-meaning young man who wanted a loan to get married, was repeatedly rebuffed and told to come back next year.

"Poor kid," said Eslami, shaking his head and biting into a cucumber.

Before handing out the money, the councilors skim off their own "commissions."

At a house nearby, Khosro, a former financial consultant, was also enjoying the show.

"A little while ago they had the village elections. People were paying bribes and promising cash. Two of the candidates were clearly Rafsanjani and Karroubi," he said.

Clerics Mehdi Karroubi and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ran unsuccessful campaigns in June's presidential elections that were won by conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Graft watchdog Transparency International puts Iran 88th in its 159-country corruption perception index.

CENSORSHIP AND ATOMIC PEAS

One of the best loved characters in the soap is the town's scowling gendarme, who sports an impressive mustache and perpetually barks orders to the cowed villagers.

"The episode where they conscript everyone was spot on," said translator Kambiz, now a confessed Barareh addict. "I was conscripted into the gendarmerie myself and they got a perfect picture of what a sorry lot conscripts are."

The gendarme is also responsible for zealously censoring Barareh's newspaper. He accuses the long-suffering editor of Bolshevik propaganda for a crossword clue asking "What is the capital of Russia?."

Iran closely monitors its press, and reporters deemed to "spread lies" can promptly end up in jail.

On Iran's nuclear program, "Barareh" firmly backs Iran's right to nuclear technology and criticizes the Europeans for requesting that Iran enrich its uranium abroad. Tehran insists its atomic program is peaceful. .

Beyond the big questions of bribery, censorship, and uranium enrichment, "Barareh" also tackles social issues. The village is divided into "Upper" and "Lower" Barareh, a divide that mirrors class boundaries in Tehran.

The football game between the two parts of the village mirrored the match between Tehran's two teams, Persepolis and Esteghlal -- a grudge match which has several times sparked vicious clashes between rival fans.

State television's survey center said the show was drawing a huge audience, being watched by 90 percent of people with access to a television, now most of Iran's 69 million people.

It cited surveys that said 67 percent of viewers appreciated the show for tackling contemporary social issues through humor. There were, however, plenty of complaints.

"I was listening to state radio the other day and one village council complained that the accent they use in Barareh was mocking them," said Khosro.

State television's survey center said some viewers had complained the show was an insult to rural morals and degraded "distinguished" figures such as poets.

Barareh's poet is manifestly gay, breaking a taboo in a country where homosexuality is illegal.

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