Before Iran Elected Rouhani, TIME Journeyed Inside the Islamic Republic

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Newsha Tavakolian / Polaris for TIME

Supporters of President-elect Hassan Rouhani gather in Tehran to celebrate early results that made his election seem inevitable

Leaning against the wall in the sitting room from which Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini used to rule Iran is a portrait of a young boy. A portrait of the Prophet Muhammad as a young boy, to be exact. How is it that this fire-tongued figure of radical Shiism, this thrower of fatwas, the face of political Islam, would permit something as sacrilegious as a portrait of the Prophet in his presence, when we all know that depicting the founder of Islam is a sin? The guard at the gate of Khomeini’s house and museum in Tehran just shrugged. “I don’t know. He just liked it.”

For one week, TIME was granted rare access to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country as surprising as it is inaccessible to most foreign journalists. In the week leading up to the historic presidential election that ushered in what is likely to be Iran’s best chance at normalizing relations with the rest of the world, moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani, we spoke with ordinary Iranians for a perspective on how they see the world. From a poet who chafes at censorship – “I am not allowed to write about my beloved,” he says—to a cleric who mans an advice hotline from the former home of Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, we were in turns delighted, perplexed and ever hungry for more. From this week’s magazine story:

We were accompanied everywhere by a Foreign Ministry–appointed translator, whose discomfort with political talk was balanced by his tolerance for two curious American journalists. Wherever we spoke to people out on the street, interviewing them about the election and sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program, Iranians gathered round to politely listen in, sometimes interjecting their own views, until there was a crowd 10 people deep. They were eager to venture their opinions and to hear ours. Internet restrictions and censored news have cut them off from the outside world and made them more curious to hear what outsiders have to say.

Click here to find out what Iranians told TIME’s Managing Editor Rick Stengel and Middle East Bureau Chief Aryn Baker in the full magazine story.