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.