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Marriage In Iran: 'Til Death, or Contract Expiration, Do Us Part

Iran is embracing, quite literally, friends with benefits.

The Islamic Republic that requires women to wear headscarves or be whipped, separates the sexes on buses and subways and treats adultery as a capital crime is abuzz with a straight-faced proposal by its hard-line interior minister -- himself a member of the Muslim clergy -- to let men and women marry for a specified amount of time.

Earlier this month, Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Muhammadi declared that "temporary marriage is God’s rule," and encouraged Iranians to accept the notion of men and women entering into legally binding, but temporary, unions. His suggestion was received with serious, if stunned, attention by a population that has endured 28 years of Islamic theocracy.

The proposal was intended to address one of Iran’s starkest demographic contradictions: In a land of 73 million people, more than 70 percent are under the age of 30. Few can afford a traditional wedding, which costs as much as $20,000 and still includes payment of a dowry to the bride’s family. Nor can they buy a place to live -- the cheapest one-bedroom flat in Tehran runs about $50,000 -- as a married couple, leaving millions of lovelorn youngsters, in their procreational prime, with nowhere to go.

Premarital sex, officially frowned upon, is commonplace, as it is around much of the 21st century world. Rather than acknowledge that fact, the government is trying to find a bureaucratic solution that would allow couples to relieve their sexual frustration without breaking the letter of Islamic law. The result: a marriage, consented to by contract by both parties, with a start and finish date, sometimes measuring only a weekend in length. There would be no minimum age for girls.

Temporary marriage, or sigheh, as it is called here, is not some fly-by night scheme cooked up by Middle Eastern cheatin’ hearts. It has a theological base in the Shiite sect of Islam, where it was common until it was banned by the second Caliph, Omar, in the 7th Century. Sigheh was reintroduced by the fourth caliph, Imam Ali. At that time, it was intended to allow the widows of fallen soldiers to find new men to look after them, without tying either down for life.

Unlike the rival Sunni sect of Islam, which permits men to take up to four wives at the same time (women have no such rights), polygamy is uncommon in Shia-dominated Iran. Instead, Iranian clerics have endorsed temporary marriages, in which a man can form an eternal, or if he prefers, one-hour, bond with a woman not his wife, simply by signing a contract.

Though such an arrangement might resemble prostitution to the Western mind, Shia theology distinguishes the two.

Should a child be produced by such a temporary liaison, the mother and father agree to share the costs of support, though men are not required to help in rearing children of a such a marriage. Men further benefit by being allowed to enter into sigheh with non-Muslims. Women are restricted to having temporary partners of their own faith.

Elli, a 25-year old language major at Tehran University, reacted with a knowing smile when asked about the proposal. "This is a way for old men to have sex with young girls, then forget about them," she said, her eyes dancing under her hijab, or headscarf. "If two old people -- say, in their 40s -- want to do that, it’s fine with me. But leave us young girls alone." Under the proposal as it now stands, even teenage girls could enter into sigheh with their fathers’ permission.

This is not the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that temporary marriage has been floated. Then-President Hashimi Rafsanjani raised the idea 15 years ago, but it was roundly condemned by Islamic clergymen. Now, however, with a rising proportion of unmarried youth, unaffordable housing and ever-encroaching Western influences, the Ahmadinejad government may have to face up to the reality that love will be served, even if only temporarily.

John Moody is executive vice president of FOX News.

John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Vatican correspondent and Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books, including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."