November 5, 2015 5:37 AM EST

Editor at Large Karl Vick, who for four years served as a bureau chief in the Middle East and had visited Iran 11 times, returned to the country in October to assess what has–and has not–changed during the tumultuous past decade. There are more posters for products (IFC: Iran Fried Chicken) and fewer ones for martyrs. Even the slogan of the 1979 Islamic revolution, “Death to America,” is reserved mainly for Friday prayers. Men and women mingle more freely. “No one was necking in public,” Vick observes, “but no one seemed to be fearing the morality police.”

In pursuit of the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions, President Hassan Rouhani has projected an air of modernity and moderation–so Vick sought out as many hard-liners as he could. He explored their efforts to block the movement toward greater freedom, like the jailing not only of Iranian Americans like journalist Jason Rezaian but also of activists and businessmen charged with undermining the regime. Both reformists and hard-liners are watching U.S. behavior closely. “The consensus view,” Vick says, “is that if Washington’s actions can be interpreted as aggressive or deceptive, the hard-liners will be empowered.” Observed a columnist who is a Basiji, a hard-liner who takes orders from the Revolutionary Guards: “Being politically aware, knowing your enemy, this is very important. America needs to know more about Iran.”

The cover image and the photos inside are by Newsha Tavakolian, a self-taught Iranian photographer who began working professionally at 16. In 2002 she covered events leading up to the Iraq War for international publications, including TIME. Next month she will receive the prestigious Prince Claus Award, in recognition of her photographic work, including a photo essay on Kurdish female fighters commissioned by TIME for the April 20, 2015, issue.

Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR

LIGHTBOX

In the ninth month of their calendar, thousands of Tibetan Buddhists gather in the remote Larung Valley in China’s Sichuan province to celebrate Buddha’s descent from the heavens. The recent weeklong celebration took place in high-altitude landscapes, which were captured by photographer Kevin Frayer. “Everywhere on the Tibetan plateau you can feel Buddhism in the air,” he says. See more at lightbox.time.com.

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The fifth episode of TIME’s documentary series A Year in Space follows astronaut Scott Kelly and his colleagues from liftoff–in the cramped cockpit seen here–to arrival, eight hours later, at the International Space Station, their orbiting home for 12 full months. Watch at time.com/space.

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This appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of TIME.

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