ALONG THE CASPIAN SEA, Iran
One of the most pernicious misunderstandings in the West about Iranians is that they are dour religious fanatics.
About half of Iranians are under the age of 25, and Iran has done a solid job of raising their education levels. I was struck on my 1,700-mile road trip across Iran by how many of them share American values, seeking fun rather than fanaticism. They seem less interested in the mosques than in amusement parks (which are ubiquitous in Iran).
"Young people don't really go to the mosques," said a 23-year-old man in eastern Iran, cheerfully exaggerating. "We want more ways to have fun."
He said he drinks - alcohol is illegal but everywhere - and, until recently, used drugs. Iranian officials have suggested that perhaps 10 percent of the population uses illegal drugs, traditionally opium and heroin but increasingly methamphetamines as well.
This man had joined the 2009 democracy protests, but then, he said, he was detained and beaten for several days, losing a tooth in the process. That soured him on political activism, and, like many others, he now just wants to go abroad.
You wouldn't think a New Yorker could be made to blush in Tehran, but I was taken aback by the hookup scene of one-night stands: Young men with flashy cars troll for women, chat them up and then drive off with them. There is also prostitution, and Tehran's former police chief was arrested in 2008 in a brothel together with six prostitutes.
In the 1970s, disgruntled young Iranians rebelled against a corrupt secular regime by embracing an ascetic form of Islam. Now they're rebelling against a corrupt religious regime by embracing personal freedom - in some cases, even sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
They often also look warmly on the United States, which is quite dizzying. In Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt, we Americans hand out billions of dollars in aid and are often hated. I come to Iran, and people hand me gifts!
This youth culture of Iran is nurtured by the Internet - two-thirds of Iranian households have computers - and by satellite television, which is banned but widespread. A BBG/Gallup phone survey conducted in March found that one-third of Iranians acknowledged watching satellite television in the previous week, and the real number may be much higher.
"The effect of satellite TV is very big," said one young woman who said that she was initially aghast when she saw fellow Muslim women in Turkey wearing bikinis but gradually decided that there was more than one way to live.
Police stage raids to confiscate satellite dishes and can fine homeowners as much as $400 for having them, but they're not very efficient.
"You recognize that it's the police taking the dishes away, and you just don't answer the door," said a shop owner in Gorgan. "So they take the dish and just go away" without imposing the fine.
Pirated music, videos and video games are widespread. One popular - but banned - game now is Battlefield 3, in which U.S. military forces storm Tehran. In one home I visited, the kids were playing Grand Theft Auto.
These young people are Iran's future, and they can be our allies. But while we have a strategy in nuclear negotiations, I'm not sure we in the West have a strategy for Iran itself.
Western policymakers see Iran as fanatical, the same way they saw China in the 1960s. There was talk back then of a military option against China, and if we had taken that route, Beijing might still be ruled by Maoists - a larger version of North Korea.
My road trip across Iran leaves me convinced that change will come here, too, if we just have the patience not to disrupt the subterranean forces at work: rising education, an expanding middle class, growing economic frustration, erosion of the government monopoly on information. My hunch is that if there is no war between Iran and the West - which would probably strengthen the regime - hard-liners will go the way of Mao, and Iran will end up looking something like Turkey.
I think of a young man I met who said wistfully: "It's normal for a boy and a girl to want to hang out together. What's wrong with that?"
The romantics are on our side and far outnumber the fanatics. We should bet on them, not bombs, as agents of change.
© 2012 New York Times News Service