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.
But they live in a world here where religious police known as the Basij patrol the streets, enforcing the dress code and even breaking into private parties where there is dancing or alcohol. Babak, a male student who is also 21, told us he's been beaten several times, once for walking with his girlfriend in public. They were not even holding hands. "Everything is forbidden for me," Babak said. "Censorship is everywhere."
This deep frustration — which is felt by people of all ages, not just the young — has become a key fact of political life here. When reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami ran for re-election last year, he won in a landslide. The reformers also took a majority of seats in the parliament. The people are voting for Khatami's central agenda: creation of what he calls a "civil society" where people are guaranteed certain freedoms.
But sitting on top of this democracy are the conservatives, led by Khomeini's successor as Supreme Leader (a constitutional position), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These Islamic hardliners still control the courts, and the military, and Iran's foreign policy. So for now at least, the urge for reform — for opening things up — is still bottled up.
Which brings us to President Bush's so-called "Axis of Evil." That, of course, is what attracted us here in the first place — the president's charge that, like Iraq and North Korea, Iran is busy developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorists — an explosive mix that could someday threaten the West with a clear and present danger.
Confronting a Cleric
We confronted one of the most powerful men in Iran with these charges — Hassan Rohani, head of the Supreme National Security Council. To see Rohani, you drive through Tehran's horrific traffic and park outside a nondescript building on a small side street. The Revolutionary Guard repeatedly searched our team and our equipment. Then they opened a door into Rohani's elegant complex and we were suddenly in a beautiful, secret garden straight out of an ancient Persian tale.
Rohani is a cleric, and is clearly at ease with the power he wields. He answered every one of our questions with good humor, even the toughest.
There were some surprises. One of them was to hear how threatened Iranian officials feel by the Bush administration. Rohani told us that the United States has never been more aggressive towards Iran than now, not even during the hostage crisis. When Rohani and his colleagues hear Washington talk about the "unelected leaders" in Iran, they see it as setting a rationale for overthrowing the government here. This is not rhetoric. They see it as a real possibility.
When it came to the Bush administration's allegations against Iran, Rohani denied them all. This was not a surprise: it's what Iranian officials always do. No, they had nothing to do with that ship, the Karine A, that was seized by the Israelis with 50 tons of weapons allegedly meant for the Palestinians. No, they have no program to develop nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.
Rohani had no qualms about defending the Palestinian uprising against the Israelis — even the campaign of suicide bombings. Iran makes a distinction between terrorism — which it says it opposes — and freedom fighters. Where does Rohani draw the line? "It is very clear that fighting for the freedom of occupied land is different from a terrorist act," he said.
I asked: "When someone walks into a restaurant, to a Passover Seder, and slaughters innocent families, is that a freedom fighter?"
Rohani's answer: "What should they do? What is the Palestinians' alternative? The Palestinians, whose children are being killed."
I pressed him: "So they should kill Israeli children?"
And he replied: "What is their alternative? If these people are blowing themselves to pieces before anything else, this means there remains no alternative."
A New Mood
I hope you'll read the full transcript of the Rohani interview and watch our broadcast report on Primetime Thursday. Having traveled the world for the last 30 years, I found Iran to be one of the most vital, complex, and yes, difficult places to report on that I have ever encountered.
From everything U.S. intelligence officials told us — and everything we found out ourselves here — Iran does aggressively pursue its policies in the Middle East, especially toward Israel. However, I was far less convinced that Iran has much interest in promoting terrorism around the world.
Most of all, if you spend time here, you are likely to come away with the strong sense that things will change. The hardliners are still in charge. But there is a mood in the street — a determination to lead a freer, less isolated life — that in the long run, seems irreversible.