From the moment you land here in Iran's capital, you sense this foreign assignment really will be "different."
The flight attendant has already come on the intercom — to warn women they must cover themselves in keeping with Islamic rules. As you line up at airport immigration to have your visa stamped — and look up at huge pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini — you can't help but think back to the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis.
There is a lot in Iran to remind you of the "bad old days" when Islamic radicals here cursed the United States as "the Great Satan." During the week we spent here, reform-minded newspapers were shut down and a 71-year-old dissident who had spent the previous 18 months in the United States receiving cancer treatment was hauled into court for allegedly trying to overthrow the Islamic state. Make no mistake: the Islamic conservatives still have the ultimate power here.
But it's a lot more complicated than that. A perfect example is the Friday prayer service at Tehran University. I stood on the press platform with my American news crew — as mullahs led the faithful in chants of "Death to America." Hundreds of Revolutionary Guards, the shock troops of the Islamic Republic, were beating their chests in religious fervor.
But as soon as the service was over, people came up to me and asked where I was from. "America," I said hesitantly, their chants still echoing in my ears.
"Oh, I've got a cousin in New Jersey," one man said. "I just came back from the States," said another.
How to reconcile what's going on in Iran? It seemed to our team that when crowds here say "Death to America" they mean death to U.S. foreign policy, especially the United States' support for Israel and economic sanctions against Iran. But when it comes to the American people, they want to trade with us, to visit us, and, to a surprising degree, to live like we do.
Denim Jackets and Satellite Dishes
You see this especially in the young people. There has been a population explosion since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Fully two-thirds of the population here is under 25. That's 40 million people who have little memory of what brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in the first place.
A lot of people here think that simple demographics — the undeniable sway of this generation — will take Iran in a new direction. But where? We talked with a group of college students in Tehran, and their message was clear. They are tired of all the rules and restrictions, and they are fed up with the isolation from the world community. They want Islam as a religion, but they don't want the mullahs running their lives.
A 21-year-old drama student named Raha clearly bridles at always having to cover her head in public. So she has pushed the scarf to the back of her hair, and puts stylish sunglasses up front. Add her denim jacket, bright red pants and sneakers and, as I told her, she looked like she could be in Beverly Hills, not Tehran.
It's more than just clothes. The young people here are bombarded with Western images. They go to an Internet café and see the latest trends. Satellite dishes are illegal, but they are everywhere. The students we spoke to are up to date with the latest music videos.