Holiday shopping in Tehran. (Morteza Nikoubazl / Courtesy Reuters)

It was Christmastime in Tehran, and forecasters were predicting another early snow. On a cold day last December at the bazaar in Tajrish, the wealthy historic neighborhood in northern Tehran, shoppers avoided the exposed alleyway stalls and instead headed for the warmth of the nearby mini-malls, which were as overheated as any in the United States. Inside one, kids gathered around the window of a Christmas shop to gaze at the ornaments and plastic Santas inside. A few other shops also had Christmas decorations -- perfectly legal in the Islamic Republic, even if the religious authorities frown on them. Christians are free to celebrate as they wish -- there are even Christmas trees for sale on the sidewalks in the Armenian neighborhoods of Tehran.

The decorations contrasted sharply with the thousands of black and green "Ya Hossein" flags fluttering outside virtually every

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  • HOOMAN MAJD is the author, most recently, of The Ayatollah's Democracy: An Iranian Challenge.
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