HOLLYWOOD starlets who regret topless appearances in B-list films made before they hit the big time should spare a pitying thought for their Iranian counterparts - who risk far more than mere embarrassment.
In a scandal now gripping the conservative Islamic country, police are investigating a private film circulating on the black market that purports to show a rising young soap star making love to her boyfriend.
The woman is being investigated for a suspected breach of the country's morality laws that prohibit sex outside marriage. Lashing is the penalty.
Her alleged partner in the footage, which has spread across the internet, is suspected of distributing the material illegally and could be jailed for a year. He is understood to have fled to nearby Dubai, home to a large Iranian expatriate community.
The distraught starlet, identified as Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, who is in her twenties, has strenuously denied being the woman in the grainy film. But her reputation has been built on playing wise and morally admirable characters. At the very least, her career could be destroyed by the scandal that has titillated a public unused to salacious gossip about celebrities - but not lacking an appetite for it.
The actress has denounced the events as an "immoral campaign" and spoke of "unjust and dishonourable accusations aimed at trampling over the honour of a woman".
She also reassured fans there was no truth to rumours she had attempted suicide because of the scandal. "I just want to tell my country's people that I am alive," she told the semi-official Ilna news agency. "I should think of Iranian women's strength and defend the respect for the girls and women of my nation."
Police have put a ban on naming anyone involved in the film, but photographs of the actress have been splashed across the front pages of the press, connecting her with the sex scenes.
In the newspaper pictures she appears demure in a headscarf, which is also compulsory in Iranian state television productions, where strict Islamic rules do not even allow the slightest touching between unrelated or unmarried men and women.
The sex film is thought to be two years old, but surfaced as a CD-ROM and on some websites last month. The scandal has become so prominent that Tehran's hard-line chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, is personally handling the case.
"A full report and a copy of the film have been sent to the prosecutor ... the results will be announced after the inquiry," a judiciary official said.
Mr Mortazavi has ordered the arrest of the man in the film, who is now a fugitive. "If the man is caught we will jail him for at least six months, up to a year," a judiciary official said.
According to Iran's Islamic law, any person convicted of encouraging prostitution, harming people's privacy or public morality faces jail. Any sexual relationship outside marriage is also illegal and is punishable by lashing. The penalty can be worse if adultery is involved.
An Iranian woman was stoned to death in 2001 after being convicted of "corruption on earth" and adultery for participating in a home-made pornographic film. Detectives examining that film tracked the woman down by reading the number on the electricity meter in the room.
• An Argentine judge ordered international arrest warrants yesterday for the former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and eight others over the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in which 85 died. The Iranian government has been accused of masterminding the attack.