Imam mosque, on the southern edge of Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, Esfahan. Photo by the author.

On the edge of Iran's Dasht e Kavir desert, a young Iranian guy sits by the edge of an old reservoir-turned dirty swimming pool, drinking warm beer and gesticulating wildly as he tells jokes to his friends. As the sun shifts out from behind a clump of palm trees, Esse peels of his cotton jumper, revealing a tattoo running the length of his inside left arm.

It's a slice of lyrics, he says, tracing the dark ink. 'Who are you to tell me how to live my life?' it reads, in delicate copperplate.

Esse nods when told that these are lyrics from hip hop group Bliss N Eso, oblivious to how strange it seems that an Australian band has found popularity in the strict Islamic country, culturally and geographically on the other side of the world.

The song has become something of an anthem for Iran's younger generation, played on car stereos and iPhones, and linked on Facebook pages despite the common assumption that the secret police monitor the site for any sign of anti-government sentiment.

At another nearby desert party, a towering northern Italian man unfolds himself from the front seat of a dust streaked 4WD, shaking sand from the creases in his pants and shirt.

'I was expecting techno parties,' he says grinning as he strides into the remote guesthouse in the desert about three hours south of Tehran.

If it's raging parties the Italian wants, he's about two weeks, or four decades, too late. In the sixties and seventies, before the revolution, youngsters would travel from the big cities to the desert to dance under the stars, to take time out from the bureaucracy of Tehran and their parents.

Now, the girls come so they can take off their headscarves and party to Western music in skin-tight jeans and singlet tops. Boys sit around drinking moonshine, and smoking hash, something that was legal until 1986.

In the great sandy expanse of the Iranian desert, police turn a blind eye. But the silent threat at every party is the stringent and sometimes horrific punishment (including execution) meted out by religious police in the cities for such incursions.

As with Egypt and Turkey, more than half of Iran's 75 million population is under 35. Despite rigid censorship laws, Western culture – everything from Google and Facebook to Hollywood movies and music videos flaunting semi-naked women – is easily accessed on the internet using ISP routing programs such as Psiphon.

For many of the younger, educated Iranians, it feels like their government's ability to control Iran's propaganda is slipping as people see first hand what they are missing out on under the Islamic regime. Yet contrary to Western assumptions, it's not access to the 'excesses' of US culture that young Iranians want most. Almost universally, they hold fast to their religion. But they want the option to take a more moderate approach to its practice and implementation.

Crucially, they want an end to the power of the shadow government, run by the mullahs answerable to the Supreme Leader. But few are under any illusion about the prospects of that, particularly after the disastrous and bloody 2009 Green Revolution and the problems arising from the Arab Spring.

Esse is a carpet salesman and works in the popular tourist hub of Esfahan. He trained as an engineer but can't find work. It's a common problem for university graduates. Professional positions are scarce and usually require a friendly word in the ear of a government contact to seal the deal. Esse says most people are hoping that eventually, international sanctions will be lifted so the economy can be given breathing room. As it is, few expect a functioning relationship with the US (laughingly referred to as 'Big Boss'), despite moves by Iran Air to recommence direct flights from Tehran to Los Angeles, and the relative success of nuclear talks in Geneva late last year.

Street signs and walls around Esfahan and Tehran are plastered with graffiti railing against America. For much of it, the paint still looks fresh.

Farid knows first hand the dangers of speaking out publicly against the Iranian regime. He is also an engineer by trade but introduces himself as a writer. He was in Turkey when he got the call from a government official confirming he was on a traitor watch list and demanding his blog be dismantled. He seriously considered not returning to Iran because of concerns for his personal security.

Both Esse and Farid want to leave Iran, but there are only a handful of countries to which Iranians can freely travel. Turkey and Somalia are among them. Even if they want to leave, it's almost impossible to navigate the bureaucracy to obtain a passport.

But their opinion only represents one side of the spectrum. For foreigners traveling in Iran it is notoriously difficult to interact with strict Islamists, which means any commentary on the state of the country is weighed in favour of globalisation.

In Esfahan, away from the tourist areas, hustles of women wrapped in black chador (translated literally as 'black sheet') give Westerners a glaring once-over as they pass. Some of the younger generation have nicknamed these women the 'triangle ladies', a disparaging reference to the triangle-shaped window of skin left exposed around their eyes.

For those who will talk, the desire to be allowed to practice a more moderate version of Islam, and to modernise the country's approach to foreign policy and the America, is omnipresent.

Under the shadow of Esfahan's famous mosques, by the side of the water feature in Naqsh e Jahan Square, a man in his fifties lays out a newspaper to protect his pants from the damp concrete. It's the second largest square in the world, he declares, after Tiananmen Square in China. What is it with repressive regimes and enormous squares? He laughs.

He is a watch maker but comes to the square to practice his English and press foreigners for information about the outside world. He recalls the day he stood watching the family's black and white television in 1979, triumphant as news footage showed distressed and tearful Pahlavi supporters and Western sympathisers fleeing the violence in Tehran.

His mother walked in from the kitchen and saw him celebrating the victory.

'She told me I would be the one with tears.' He is quite for a moment, staring past the hundreds of tiny fountains spurting across the rectangular pond.

'She died a year later,' he says. 'And she was right.'