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Inside Iran

It's a place molded by 2,500 years of history and cloaked in mystery. An election this week could mark a crucial moment for U.S.-Iranian relations. But how much do we really understand about Iran? Dateline obtained rare access to this nation of contrasts and contradictions.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

We're in Iran, and as we make our way, we're expecting what most Americans probably would expect.   A place of rage----especially toward the West, which is increasingly concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions; where freedom of expression is non-existent. But we soon discover there is another side to this Islamic Republic beyond those chants of death to America. There is an Iran unknown to most Americans. Young people singing for joy at a rally for a presidential candidate.

We are, you know, we are human, we are not terrorists!!

A  woman--who used to be a man-- her sex change operation approved by the Iranian government. A place where there's a proactive government policy to prevent AIDS.

Dr. Minoo Mohraz: I like you too, if you listen to me, don't worry, okay?

Where a Muslim cleric kisses a Jewish leader in friendship. And where women have more options than you might think. Now, a journey into a country of contradictions, at a significant moment in world history.  In Iran, voices of a new generation are beginning to be heard.

Everyone answers to a religious cleric known as the supreme leader. But there is also an elected president who runs the day-to-day government. And later this week, voters here will go to the polls to choose their next president. And the fiery Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is facing a serious challenge. Could the results alter the course of U.S.-Iranian relations?

President Obama: I would like to speak clearly to Iran 's leaders.

... At a time when the U.S. itself is showing signs of changing course.

President Obama: This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.   

But realistically, is mutual respect even possible between the United States and Iran?

Hooman Majd: The true Iran is probably very much like America.

Hooman Majd understands both cultures better than most.  The son of an Iranian diplomat, he grew up in the West, becoming a New York-based writer. He's written a book describing the many paradoxes of modern-day Iran.

Hooman Majd: Most people have the same desires, the same needs as most Americans do.  There's a very big difference in the religion. But in reality what goes on in people's homes, what people think, what people do, you know, aspire to, is very similar um to what Americans desire and aspire to.

Then why all the tension?  To understand, consider Iran's history rich history dating back more than two thousand years when it was called the Persian Empire.  A civilization that came up with the first human rights doctrine and many other innovations...

Dateline NBC’s Ann Curry: Iran is the source of Polo?

Hooman Majd: The very town we're sitting in right now.  Yes.

Ann Curry: What else?

Hooman Majd: Backgammon, chess-- certain mathematical theories, astronomy-- all that goes back centuries and centuries, thousands of years.  So, Iranians are very, very proud of all that.  Yes.

The trouble between Iran and the United States started in the 1950s. After centuries of rule by monarchs known as the shahs, Iran was moving toward democracy. But the U.S.'S CIA helped get rid of Iran's democratically elected leader in favor of the Shah, who became known for repressing his people. They revolted in 1979. A cleric - Ayatollah Khomeini - returned to Iran from exile to lead the Islamic revolution. The U.S. gave the Shah refuge.

In retribution, a group of Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Iran's capital, Tehran, and held more than 50 Americans hostage for 444 days. That set the tone for U.S.-Iranian relations for the next thirty years. Worsening the tensions --the U.S. supported Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s-- when hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed, some with chemical weapons.

Hooman Majd: They resent that greatly that the United States took the side of a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein, who had invaded their country illegally. 

Inside Iran

Slideshow  8 photos

Inside Iran

NBC’s Ann Curry shares photographs from NBC’s reporting inside this secretive and surprising nation.

Even today you can see the depth of emotion at this cemetery, where tens of thousands of Iran's soldiers are buried. And in the way people line up to kiss a well-renown hero from that war.

Hooman Majd: Most families have-- all families have somebody who served-- my-- my own family included. They witnessed a horrific, horrific war.

Mistrust runs deep on both sides, with the U.S. pointing to Iran's poor record on human rights--and its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

President Bush, 2002 State Of The Union: States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.

Relations worsened further after the election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for his anti-U.S. and anti-Israel diatribes--and for his repeated questioning of the Holocaust. But seeds of change may now be taking root in Iran.

Man: I have no freedom, no freedom of speech.  And so I'm trying-- I'm trying to change my destiny by voting. 

Of the seventy million people in Iran, two thirds of them are under the age of 30. Many are wary of talking openly - but we'll meet some who are willing to tell a stranger about the change they want.

Ann Curry: What kind of freedom do you want?

It's Friday in Iran's capital city of Tehran.  For the past thirty years, thousands of believers have gathered for weekly Friday prayers. Leaders of the Islamic revolution still speak here, holding the barrel of a gun, keeping the spirit of the revolution alive.

But as the presidential election season gets underway, there are hints of change in Iran. The chants of death to America aren't quite what they used to be, and the anti-American murals of the revolution are fading. That doesn't mean authorities aren't suspicious of visiting American reporters.

Ann Curry: Shooting a story in Iran is not at all like shooting a story in the United States. This is the number of permission slips we had to get just to shoot this story. And, sometimes you had to get permission to get permission.

Still, we have no trouble on this Friday traveling to the hills outside the city, where we find another Friday ritual: hundreds of Iran's youth, hiking, picnicking, having fun. Iranian American author Hooman Majd tells us Iran's Islamic laws prohibit some of what we're seeing here, especially unmarried couples doing things as simple as holding hands and hugging.  Even walking together could get them in trouble.

Ann Curry: They come here for release.

Hooman Majd: Total release.

Ann Curry: A release from what?

Hooman Majd: A release from social behavior laws basically that the only way they could do this in Tehran is behind closed doors.

Majd, an NBC News consultant, says it's another sign that Iran is evolving.

Ann Curry: But, why is the government allow this if it’s against the law?

Hooman Majd: Because it’s not threatening to them. The government would crack down if we’re down in the park-- Downtown Tehran. They feel like this is sort of away from the eyes of the religious.

In Iran, premarital sex is against the law. So is being gay and drinking alcohol.  Certain music, including some rap, is banned.  And there are things women cannot do in public, like sing or remove their headscarves. On a bridge overlooking a café and a waterfall, our Tehran producer and I run into a small group of young people, who ask us not to show their faces.

Ann Curry: What kind of freedom do you want?

Male teen: It's the freedom to sit here and have a beer if we want.  Hold my girlfriend's hand and not worry that the police are gonna come up and sweep us away.

These and many young people we spoke with say they like and respect Americans and want better relations with the U.S.

Ann Curry: What kind of friendship do you want with America?

Female teen: A cultural and political friendship where both sides understand each other.

At the same time, there are many conservative voices in Iran - like this family on a picnic.

Father: We have another kind freedom in Iran. We're interested in religion.

They say they're concerned about the loose behavior they see among the young people here.

Mother: These people are running a little wild out here and they shouldn't be doing this.

Ann Curry: Do you worry for the future of Iran when you see this kind of behavior?

Mother: Yes. I worry for my children. One day we're going to grow old and won't be there to look after them.  Our children will be gallivanting up here in the mountains and flirting and such. And that's not what we want.

But the strict rules in this society haven't prevented Iran from having the same kind of social problems as in the United States. Iran has a serious drug problem, for example. You can find traces of hypodermic needles on the streets. Neighboring Afghanistan is the source of vast shipments of opium and heroin into Iran.

According to the United Nations, Iran has more than 1.2 million addicts.  This woman, Bahire, tells us she is a recovering addict. Sitting with her boyfriend, she tells us it was her addicted ex-husband who led her into a life a drugs.

Bahire: My ex-husband tried to take me down a very, very bad road in life.

A road that got even bumpier. She says she hasn't seen her daughter in three years. Even though her ex-husband is the one living in a halfway house, she says, he was given full custody because the laws favor men. 

Bahire: They've given him custody, because he's a man.  And this is the way we have to live here.

Indeed, the issue of women's rights is front and center, as Iran's presidential election draws near. In Iran's universities - nearly two thirds of all students are women. And as we're about to discover on our journey, it is the women of Iran -- like this prominent filmmaker -- who may become the most important agents of change.

Tahmineh Milani: For me, future is bright.

It is a sunny afternoon in Esfahan - one of Iran's most beautiful cities. As we walk through a local park, we meet a group of women on a picnic.

Ann Curry: Hello?

Woman: Hello.

Ann Curry: Thank you so much.

They dress in traditional chadors - which cover their bodies completely.  They explain it's all about maintaining modesty.

Ann Curry: Can you show me then, how do you wear this chador exactly? Okay, you put it on.

Though, this type of clothing is mandatory in places like Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally. In Iran, it's a choice. Women in these families have dressed like this for generations.

Ann Curry: Now, what about your face? How much of your face do you have to cover? Oh, like this.

They say women should be covered for their own protection.

Ann Curry: Doesn't it get pretty hot under this?

Hot, perhaps, but this woman says covering yourself helps you get to paradise. And, they tell me I look better in a Chador. Chadors may not be mandatory in Iran, but remember, by law women must keep their heads covered in public. Iranian-American author Hooman Majd:

Ann Curry: And if I don't--

Hooman Majd: Yes.

Ann Curry: --do this, if someone--

Hooman Majd: Yes.

Ann Curry: --wanted to, they could call the police?

Hooman Majd: They could-- they could call the-- morals police--

Ann Curry: And what would happen to me?

Hooman Majd: As a foreigner, nothing would happen to you.  As an Iranian, they would say-- they would give you a stern warning.

Ann Curry: What if I did it again?  What if I--

Hooman Majd: Then--

Ann Curry: --refused to wear one?

Hooman Majd: If you refused to wear one, you would-- you could go to jail.

In the capital of Tehran, many women have a more modern approach to complying with the law. Finding fashionable ways to wear their headscarves - called hijabs.

Shopowner: Our clients are diverse. From young girls to 60-year-old women.

At shops like this, women can buy Western styles.

Shopowner: We do have clients that are dressed in chador and they do buy a dress which might be sleeveless or open, but  they wear them in the privacy of their own home.

But women here face much more serious challenges than the dress code. Nasrin Sotoudeh is a leading human rights lawyer.

Ann Curry: I notice you're the first woman I've interviewed who has not felt a need to wear this.  Why are you not wearing it?

Nasrin Sotoudeh: Although we don't like this law and we oppose it, we have to obey it and we do obey it just in public.  Here is my private office. I don't have to wear a hijab. 

She takes on issues she says are long overlooked: She defends women’s rights activists, including this one who was sentenced to three years in prison just for campaigning for equal rights. And she points out that when a parent dies, daughters inherit only half the amount sons do. Men can divorce at will.  Women cannot. Sotoudeh is also fighting to get Iran to stop executing minors. 

Nasrin Sotoudeh: Usually they keep them in jail and then, when they are over 18, they execute them.

A mother of two, she says she's lucky to have a husband who supports her work.

Nasrin's husband: I love my wife unconditionally. I support what she does and I think what she does is extremely important.

Last year, she was awarded an international human rights prize, but Iran's government stopped her from leaving the country to accept it.

Ann Curry: So you have chosen a line of work that breaks your heart and does it over and over again.

Nasrin Sotoudeh: Yes, you have understood it right. It is very difficult work. With many difficulties we manage to do it. Once it is done, we feel very pleased.

Over and over again in Iran, we meet women who are challenging the status quo. Like filmmaker Tahmineh Milani.

Tahmineh Milani: I believe this way.  This is the-- best way to change people. 

Milani is one of the most popular and respected directors in Iran.  She's won numerous international awards for her films, most of which are about the unseen lives of middle-class women in Iran.

Tahmineh Milani: They accept their situation.  And they don't talk, they don't protest.  But they suffer.

Her movies have to be cleared by censors.  At least three have been banned. She says that earlier in her career, she challenged the country's top censor.

Tahmineh Milani: I went there and he start to-- accuse me.  And he said, "We will bring you and we will-- beat you-- here."

Ann Curry: Whip you.

Tahmineh Milani: Yes, whip you.  Yes, yes, yeah, whip you. 

She was not beaten, but pregnant with twins at the time, she says the stress took its toll. She gave birth prematurely. Her daughter lived.

Tahmineh Milani: And after two, three days my son died. 

Ann Curry: Why didn't you stop your work?

Tahmineh Milani: Because I believe my way.  Because, I believe-- I can be useful in my society, because this is my society.  This is my country.  We really love Iran.  I choose to live here and I want to keep this place. 

In 2001, she made a film called "the hidden half" about a woman unjustly sentenced to death.  Ironically, after the film was released, Milani was arrested and jailed and faced the death penalty herself.

Ann Curry: They accused you of being anti-God.

Tahmineh Milani: Yeah, and three--

Ann Curry: Other charges.

Tahmineh Milani: --more dangerous than these. 

She says she was given a stern warning:

Tahmineh Milani: "We are going to kill you to be good lesson to another people."

Ann Curry: They said that to you? They said, "We're gonna kill you"?

Tahmineh Milani: Yes, yes.  I had four death penalties.

Ann Curry: For making a movie.

Tahmineh Milani: Yes. 

After an international outcry, including pleas from Hollywood heavyweights like Martin Scorsese, Milani was released. She says she's learned from experience how to work within the system to get her message across, even if it means restraining her work.

Ann Curry: So, you're saying that the censorship is affecting your work?

Tahmineh Milani: Well, of course it is.

Because of government censors, her current release, superstar, about a narcissistic movie star, is less political. But, Tahmineh Milani believes no matter who wins next week's presidential election here, greater freedom of expression is coming to Iran.

Ann Curry: You could not make these movies, then, unless you had faith in the future for Iran.  So what is the future for Iran's women that you dream of?

Tahmineh Milani: Everything is going to be changed.

In Iran, with all of its anti-Israel fervor and nuclear muscle flexing, consider this scene: A religious leader, a mullah, greeting a member of parliament with a kiss on each cheek. And what's so striking about this is the member of Parliament is Jewish.

His name is Dr. Ciamak Morsadegh, and he's the de facto leader of an estimated 20,000 or more Jews whose roots in Iran date back more than two thousand years. He's also a surgeon who runs - believe it or not - a Jewish hospital in the heart of Tehran, where most patients are Muslim.

Ann Curry: Many Americans are surprised to know that there's a Jewish community in Iran.  And once they discover this, they will want to know what is the level of discrimination against Jews in Iran?

Dr. Ciamak Morsadegh: Iran has the greatest Jewish population in the Asia and Middle East outside of Israel. And I can say that there is no important discrimination between Iranian Jews and Iranian Muslims. 

Still, the vast majority of Jews -- tens of thousands -- have left Iran since the Islamic Revolution, many landing in New York and Los Angeles.

Dr. Ciamak Morsadegh: Of course, being a religious minority in a religious country have some problems.

Problems like the international conference President Ahmadinejad hosted questioning the holocaust.

Dr. Ciamak Morsadegh: Denial of Holocaust is not the official statement of Islamic Republic of Iran government.  I think they are the personal accounts of President Ahmadinejad.

In fact, as the president was making headlines for denying the Holocaust, Iranian state television was showing a 22-part series about the holocaust - and a man known as Iran's Oskar Schindler… one of several diplomats who issued Iranian passports to save Jews fleeing the Nazis.

Ann Curry: Do you know how many Jews were saved?

Dr. Ciamak Morsadegh: There are something about 4,000 to 5,000.

Other images you might not expect to see in Iran: women firefighters, a female racecar driver, and this woman - who embodies one of Iran's more surprisingly tolerant policies. Shahrzad, who's 37 years old, was born a boy. Ten years ago, she had a sex change operation.

Schahrzad Basiri: I have always been like this.This has always been my character. Even before the operation, the first operation, I am the same person. 

Even though being gay is against the law in Iran, it is perfectly legal to be a transsexual, and it was the leader of the Islamic Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who made it that way. His reasoning: that  surgery is correcting a mistake of nature.

Shahrzad's surgeon, Dr. Shahryar Cohanzad, says he sees about fifty transsexual patients a year, and that the government even helps pay for the surgery.

Dr. Shahryar Cohanzad: In this country there are some governmental subsidies that help this issue to be dealt with

The Iranian government's proactive response to HIV/AIDS is equally surprising. Condoms are readily available in the Islamic republic. And the government provides clean needles to some drug addicts, including prison inmates.

Dr. Minoo Mohraz: Well, this is the infectious disease ward.

A lot of the credit for these policies goes to this woman, Dr. Minoo Mohraz, the foremost authority on AIDS in Iran. She says that the official number of HIV cases in the country is 19,000, but because of underreporting, there could be as many as 100,000. Her power of persuasion led authorities to set up a network of aids clinics and to offer drug treatment to some addicts instead of sending them to jail.

Ann Curry: How could you be so successful?

Dr. Minoo Mohraz: In what?

Ann Curry: In causing this country, this government to act as swiftly as it has?

Dr. Minoo Mohraz: Well, actually, because fortunately Minister of Health. We had people over there who were that were thinking just like me.

But she says iran has a long way to go on aids education, in large part because sex is still a sensitive topic here, especially on television. As we follow Dr. Mohraz on her rounds, it's clear she treats her patients as if they were her own children.

Ann Curry: There's nothing you can do for him.

This man has lost his will to live. 

Ann Curry: He's saying he wants to die.

Dr. Minoo Mohraz: Uh-huh.

Ann Curry: He's given up.

Dr. Minoo Mohraz: He's given up.

But Dr. Mohraz hasn't given up on him and he knows it.

Patient: She is a wonderful-- doctor, wonderful mother, wonderful sister.  She has tried for me all.

Ann Curry: She's tried oh-so-hard to keep you alive.

Dr. Minoo Mohraz: I like you, too, if you listen to me.  Don't worry, okay? 

Her work doesn't stop in the aids ward.  She's also set up an outpatient support program for HIV-positive patients. Where they can take classes and learn new skills.

Dr. Minoo Mohraz: I-- I, you know, I get-- I'm very-- proud of them when they-- I see that-- they are producing something

On the day we visit, this man is putting finishing touches on a musical instrument. When she first met him, she says, he could barely function.  But after getting government-funded retro-viral drugs, he gained strength, and before long was actually performing music.  The doctor was taken aback.

Dr. Minoo Mohraz: And you know that make...He was the first patient who make me cry.

And in return, she has had an equally profound impact on him.  He says he sees her as much more than his doctor.

Patient: My mother.

Ann Curry: She's your mother?

Dr. Mohraz's AIDS work is just one of many medical advances in Iran - the government also funds stem cell research and Iran has one of the best in-vitro fertilization programs in the Middle East. But the question this nation now faces is whether traditional Iran and modern Iran can come to terms with one another. And that's a question at the heart of the upcoming presidential election.

Man: We're just wanting our first-- our first rights, our human rights.

Iran's presidential campaign is in full swing. Virtually overnight, posters appear everywhere.  Top politicians are urging voters to come to the polls in record numbers.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: Here in Iran - as in the U.S. - the economy is what many voters care about most.

It's why President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected four years ago, says Iranian-American author Hooman Majd.

Hooman Majd: They voted for him because he was a populist who promised to bring them better economic times. And if they vote for him again this time, it'll be the same thing. 

The average wage is about 400 dollars a month-- just enough to get by. Unemployment and inflation are soaring. This shopowner says prices have doubled since President Ahmadinejad took office. A woman who says she didn't vote at all in the last election, says she now feels compelled to vote against Ahmadinejad. The incumbent president is concentrating his efforts on his base - rural and working class voters, who he says have been helped by his economic policies. His opposition is restricted to a narrow field approved by a council of religious leaders

His main rival is Mir Hossein Mousavi - who was prime minister in the early days of the revolution.  This week Ahmadinejad and Mousavi squared off in Iran's first televised presidential debates, where Mousavi called Ahmadinejad a dictator. Crowds are turning out for Mousavi, as at this rally in Tehran,especially younger voters.

Ann Curry: The polls show that Mousavi has a serious chance of beating President Ahmadinejad. But as in the U.S. elections, voter turnout and the youth vote will decide who wins.

Many of the young here say they're eager for change.

Man: I have no freedom, no freedom of speech.  And so I'm trying-- I'm trying to change my destiny by voting. 

Man #2: Mr. Mousavi is-- is green to us.  He represents hope to us. 

By speaking with us, some say they risk retribution from the government.

Man: I'm taking a risk.

Ann Curry: Why are you taking that risk?

Man: I want to see the-- I want to-- the world to see my country.  We are-- you-- you know, we are human; we are not terrorists. 

Man #3: Iranian people are-- good people.  And-- we have a good nation.  And-- I am proud of being Iranian.

All this excitement at this rally and the candidate himself isn't even here.  He's at a rally in another city. Instead, the keynote speaker is his mentor - none other than a former president of Iran --Mohammad Khatami. In a rare interview, Khatami says Mousavi understands the concerns of Iran's youth.

Ann Curry: The youth account for 65 percent of Iran's population and yet they're very unhappy, as you now head to your presidential elections, about restrictions on their freedoms.

Former President Mohammad Khatami: There are some restrictions and limitations.  They have to be removed, these limitations.  And the future administration, one of its first priorities should be promoting the citizenship rights, human rights, and the freedom of the people.

Khatami is also critical of President Ahmadinejad's combative approach to foreign policy.

Former President Mohammad Khatami: These are some words that would justify the policies of other countries to put pressure over Iran.  And these words should be stopped.

Ann Curry: Are you saying that Mr. Mousavi would be better for U.S. relations with Iran than President Ahmadinejad? 

Former President Mohammad Khatami: I believe-- Mr. Mousavi is a very wise diplomat. He never wants tension with his administration and other countries.  And we never intend to have enemies around the world.

Despite their differences, there is at least one key issue that both sides agree on: Iran's nuclear program, which they insist is for non-military purposes only. Though the nuclear program has prompted international sanctions against Iran, it is a source of national pride.  President Ahmadinejad recently teared up on Iranian television at a ceremony celebrating new uranium enrichment facilities. While in Iran, we ask the president for an interview.  He declined.  But we are invited to attend a press conference with him in Tehran.

Ann Curry: Mr. President, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you. The head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said quote, We believe it is one to three years that Iran will be capable of having a nuclear weapon. Whatever the intent of your nuclear program, are your scientists advancing so fast that Iran could be capable of building a nuclear weapon soon?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:  (smiles) The Iran nuclear issue is very clear, in the context of our legal rights we will continue with our program.

We are principally opposed to the production and proliferation of nuclear weapons. We feel that this is a disservice if you will to humanity.

No matter who wins the election, the nuclear issue is sure to dominate Iran's relations with the U.S. And the question remains: can anything be done to ease tensions that have mounted between the two countries over the past three decades.

Ann Curry to former President Khatami: You're saying you believe that there is a possibility of dialogue between Iran and the United States?

Thirty years into the Islamic Revolution, there are voices for change---its youth--  its women. But, remember, the Islamic Republic is a limited democracy. 

The ultimate head of state is the supreme leader: Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  He has the final say on what change will take place in Iran - from its nuclear program to its social policies.

Ann Curry: Many people feel no matter who's elected it won't matter, because this is a country that ultimately is run by the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khomeni.  Does the Supreme Leader want change?

Hooman Majd: It's very hard, 'cause nobody gets to speak to the Supreme Leader-- from-- in the media.  (laugh) He doesn't give press conferences.  He doesn't give interviews. I believe he wants some change, is my personal belief. And I think some of the change is internal that he wants to see.  He does not want to see women in bikinis. But he's not going to s-- stop some of the social progress that w-- will have to happen in Iran.  It just will have to happen.

On foreign policy, too, the supreme leader has signaled he is open to change. In March, he replied to President Obama's videotaped message to Iran with a predictable condemnation of the United States, but for the first time he said: "You change and we'll change too."

This past week, speaking in the Middle East, President Obama again said he is open-minded about Iran, even on the sensitive topic of nuclear technology.

President Obama: Any nation - including Iran - should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Obama administration is pushing for direct talks to secure guarantees that Iran will not pursue nuclear weapons.

Former President Mohammad Khatami: I really respect the American nation.

Former President Mohammad Khatami believes that relations can improve.

Former President Mohammad Khatami: So we do require a major change.  And the Americans have the key role and the leverage to change this approach.

And Iranians should also revise-- their approach toward the American policies.

Inside Iran

Slideshow  8 photos

Inside Iran

NBC’s Ann Curry shares photographs from NBC’s reporting inside this secretive and surprising nation.

Ann Curry: You're saying you believe that there is a possibility of dialogue between Iran and the United States?  President Obama has said he's extending his hand.  Will Iran unclench its fist?

Former President Mohammad Khatami: There should be negotiation with no precondition at all.  Just to get to a compromise.  A proper solution for both countries.  That's what we really seek. 

But there are serious obstacles to a deal. Iran is developing sophisticated missiles capable of hitting Israel and parts of Europe. Another obstacle is President Ahmadinejad himself: his rhetoric sows mistrust and, some fear, could provoke military action from Israel. Many in Iran are aware of the damage that's been done.

Former President Mohammad Khatami: I strongly believe that we should not-- talk like that to irritate the other people and motivate them. These words should be stopped.

And to set the record straight--we ask the former president about some of the most damaging words of all.

Ann Curry: Many people in America and people throughout the world have been offended by President Ahmadinejad's questioning about whether the Holocaust ever happened.  You are a respected Iranian leader. Will you acknowledge that the Holocaust occurred?

Former President Mohammad Khatami: Clearly I have stated that Holocaust was a great disaster, a human disaster. It was a huge crime against humanity.

Statements like that could help heal wounds abroad.  But again, the main challenge is how Iran can make peace with itself. Zahra Rahnavard is the wife of presidential candidate Ahmadinejad fears most--Mir Hossein Mousavi. She is the first woman in Iran to hit the campaign trail for her husband.

Ann Curry: Sixty-five percent of your population is under the age of 30.   Two thirds of your students in your universities are women.

Zahra Rahnavard: Uh-huh.

Ann Curry: Is Iran on the brink of a change that it cannot stop?

Zahra Rahnavard: Absolutely.  Iran is at a point where there's going to be major changes, crucial changes. 

It is a sentiment shared by many in Iran, including filmmaker Tahmineh Milani, who even after being threatened and jailed, is optimistic about the country's future.

Tahmineh Milani: For me, future is bright.  Maybe we-- we have a short time, you know, dark-- period in our society.  But everything is going to better.

Ann Curry: So, change is coming, it's just a matter of time.

Tahmineh Milani: Yes, of course. 

As voters head to the polls this week, the eyes of the world will be on Iran to see if that change is coming sooner or later.