Walking down the street in a city he had never been to, Rohan Smith was grabbed by a stranger. Reporting for News.com.au, the next few hours changed how he saw an entire country.

It's after dark beside a bustling street when a hand reaches out for my sleeve. I've been walking aimlessly searching for food in one of Iran's regional centres, a city I've never been to, a place where an easy meal seems impossible to find.

I must look lost.

A man in his 70s pulls me in and asks in surprisingly fluent English where I'm from, what I'm looking for and whether he can help me.


He's keen to assist and I'm keener to let him. We wander through the back alleys and into a building with the lights turned out and no diners in sight.

The restaurant is closed for the night but a quick exchange in Farsi opens it right up. I eat chicken and vegetables, try to stomach a local drink made of yoghurt and God knows what else then get the bill. Less than $8 but he still offers to pay.

His generosity is unexpected. A lot about Iran is unexpected. It's not the hostile environment most Australians imagine it to be. Later, inside his home sharing tea with his wife and son, I'm also struck by how "un-Iran" this feels.

His wife offers fruits and sweets and smiles. She's the first woman I've seen in weeks without a headscarf draped over her, relaxed as she is in the company of her family. I get the feeling that if alcohol weren't banned she'd have cracked a bottle, too.

Her son is something of a Donald Trump supporter (he appreciates the man's business savvy) who makes electronic dance tracks despite live music being illegal and who uses Twitter and Facebook even though they're not allowed.

The elderly gentleman who offered to help me in the street now insists on playing me his Frank Sinatra records on an ancient machine. He's a big fan of My Way and sways as he plays it again and again. We watch old footage of the American singer and actor on a scratchy VHS player for half an hour at least.

He and his family tell me about Iran, a country they love but one with deeply-rooted problems. It's like they've been waiting to get it off their chests; a conversation they can't have openly with their neighbours.

They tell me about the young women who are fighting back against conservatism by removing their frumpy black robes despite the very real threat of harsh physical punishment if they're caught.

They tell me about corruption from the mullahs — a person trained in Islamic law — and those in power and how the country's wealth is dispersed among the ruling elite instead of its people.

They tell me there's a distinct separation between the government and those it's supposed to serve, and about life before the revolution in 1979 when the country's new rulers banned vices most westerners couldn't imagine living without.

It's not what I thought I'd find in Iran but it helps me understand why the country is in a state of conflict right now. The strict observance of the Islamic code is wearing thin.
Iran is in crisis. It's so misunderstood that tourists refuse to visit and so out of touch with its people that no longer is their discontent contained within the four walls of their homes.

Last week the world watched as it spilled out into the streets. Tens of thousands of Iranians grouped together to protest against what they see as a divide between the haves and have nots. They marched against the government, against corruption, against the rising cost of basics like food. After a week, the death toll stood at 22.

Iran's supreme leader cracked down hard. He labelled protesters "enemies of the state". The elite and ruthless Revolutionary Guard was deployed and soon after promised to punish detractors and announced the "end of the sedition".

It's a strong response that suggests Tehran is worried, and with good reason. Not since 2009 has there been such an uprising.

But will it make a difference? Already we've seen a brave young woman remove her hijab and stand uncovered in public. It's a symbol of hope but hopefully it's more than just a symbol.

A young man in Iran told me this week protests have been "sporadic" and security forces have been highly visible. They're buoyed but less than optimistic.

"It seems people's demands, especially the younger generation, are more than before," he said.

"It's no longer about just economic crisis; they want to be connected with the world and living in a country without Sharia Law. Citizens chanted death to their supreme leader and clerics."

He said he hopes this week's stance is a sign of a larger shift.

"The new generation will be born and old traditions will fade (but) defeating this regime is impossible without a formidable opposition and a reliance of foreign countries."

At the very least it's a start.