In the popular imagination, Iran is a closed society, a country with strict Islamic laws that is adamantly opposed to the West. A few months after Iran signed a landmark nuclear deal with six world powers lifting decades-long sanctions,  I visited Iran’s sprawling capital Tehran and the holy cities of Mashhad and Qom. I was startled at my first-hand view of life in Iran, its people, their culture, and the landscape – aspects which have either been misrepresented in the media or not represented at all.

A family enjoys the Friday holiday in park near the Azadi Square in Tehran. Tehran has many parks, and spaces of recreational activities. In Iran, people like to spend their weekends and evenings holding family picnics in these parks.
A family enjoys the Friday holiday in park near the Azadi Square in Tehran. Tehran has many parks, and spaces of recreational activities. In Iran, people like to spend their weekends and evenings holding family picnics in these parks.
There is heavy traffic almost any time of day in Iran's big cities. Here, vehicles are heading towards the Azadi Tower (in background) in Tehran. Built in 1971 in commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, this "gateway into Tehran" was named the "Shahyad" (King's Memorial) in honor of the Shah, but was changed to "Azadi" (Freedom) after the Revolution of 1979.
There is heavy traffic almost any time of day in Iran's big cities. Here, vehicles are heading towards the Azadi Tower (in background) in Tehran. Built in 1971 in commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, this "gateway into Tehran" was named the "Shahyad" (King's Memorial) in honor of the Shah, but was changed to "Azadi" (Freedom) after the Revolution of 1979.
A woman at the wheel of a car in a Mashhad street. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran allows women to drive. However, Iranian police say women could have their cars impounded if they are caught driving with an incorrectly-worn hijab.
A woman at the wheel of a car in a Mashhad street. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran allows women to drive. However, Iranian police say women could have their cars impounded if they are caught driving with an incorrectly-worn hijab.
Crowds throng the Bazar Bozorg on a Thursday – the Iranian weekend. Traditionally, the Tehran bazaar was split into corridors, each specialising in different types of goods, including copper, carpets, paper, spices, and precious metals, as well as small traders selling all types of goods.
Crowds throng the Bazar Bozorg on a Thursday – the Iranian weekend. Traditionally, the Tehran bazaar was split into corridors, each specialising in different types of goods, including copper, carpets, paper, spices, and precious metals, as well as small traders selling all types of goods.
Families sit outside Masjid Jamkaran in Qom.  The Shias believe that Muhammad al-Mahdi, one the Twelve Imams, once appeared to offer prayers here. On Tuesday evenings, thousands gather at Jamkaran to pray and to drop notes to the Imam in a well at the site.
Families sit outside Masjid Jamkaran in Qom. The Shias believe that Muhammad al-Mahdi, one the Twelve Imams, once appeared to offer prayers here. On Tuesday evenings, thousands gather at Jamkaran to pray and to drop notes to the Imam in a well at the site.
Pilgrims visit the shrine of Masumeh Qom. Fatema Masumeh was the sister of the Imam Ali Reza. In Shia Islam, women who were close relatives of one of the Twelve Imams  are often revered as saints. Fatima Masumeh's shrine in Qom is considered one of the most significant sites in Iran. Every year, thousands of Shia Muslims travel to Qom to honour Fatima Masumeh and seek her blessings.
Pilgrims visit the shrine of Masumeh Qom. Fatema Masumeh was the sister of the Imam Ali Reza. In Shia Islam, women who were close relatives of one of the Twelve Imams are often revered as saints. Fatima Masumeh's shrine in Qom is considered one of the most significant sites in Iran. Every year, thousands of Shia Muslims travel to Qom to honour Fatima Masumeh and seek her blessings.
Islamic students exit the shrine of Masumeh Qom. Qom is one of the most important Shia pilgrimage sites in Iran. Qom has also has a centre for theological studies.
Islamic students exit the shrine of Masumeh Qom. Qom is one of the most important Shia pilgrimage sites in Iran. Qom has also has a centre for theological studies.
Passing through the Khorasan mountains on way to Mashhad. The topography of Iran consists of rugged, mountainous rims surrounding high interior basins. Some Iranians still believe that their country has a secret facility for building nuclear weapons in a mountainous region like this one.
Passing through the Khorasan mountains on way to Mashhad. The topography of Iran consists of rugged, mountainous rims surrounding high interior basins. Some Iranians still believe that their country has a secret facility for building nuclear weapons in a mountainous region like this one.
The shrine of Imam Reza is illuminated on the night of Eid-e-Ghadeer in Mashhad (Khorasan). According to Shia Islam, Ghadeer is the day when Prophet Muhammad appointed Imam Ali as his successor. The Golden Dome on top of Imam Ridha's tomb is the most prominent symbol of Mashhad.
The shrine of Imam Reza is illuminated on the night of Eid-e-Ghadeer in Mashhad (Khorasan). According to Shia Islam, Ghadeer is the day when Prophet Muhammad appointed Imam Ali as his successor. The Golden Dome on top of Imam Ridha's tomb is the most prominent symbol of Mashhad.
Children play football in a lane near Hussainyah mosque in Mashhad. Football is the most popular sport in Iran and has been a part their lives for many decades. The national team also participated in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Children play football in a lane near Hussainyah mosque in Mashhad. Football is the most popular sport in Iran and has been a part their lives for many decades. The national team also participated in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
A train ready for departure at Tehran Railway Station.  Iran is connected by a high-speed rail network. A high-speed railway line between Tehran and Isfahan and passing through Qom is currently under construction. Trains will run at up to 300 kmph on this 410-km route which is expected to be functional by 2018. Some 33 million tonnes of goods and 29 million passengers are transported annually by the rail network.
A train ready for departure at Tehran Railway Station. Iran is connected by a high-speed rail network. A high-speed railway line between Tehran and Isfahan and passing through Qom is currently under construction. Trains will run at up to 300 kmph on this 410-km route which is expected to be functional by 2018. Some 33 million tonnes of goods and 29 million passengers are transported annually by the rail network.
Isfahan in Iran has long been one of the centres for production of the famous Persian carpet. The most famous workshop in Isfahan is Seirafian. International sanctions had severely hurt the carpet industry. Now that sanctions have been lifted, the industry hopes to generate more revenue by exporting Iranian carpets to the West.
Isfahan in Iran has long been one of the centres for production of the famous Persian carpet. The most famous workshop in Isfahan is Seirafian. International sanctions had severely hurt the carpet industry. Now that sanctions have been lifted, the industry hopes to generate more revenue by exporting Iranian carpets to the West.
In contrast to the modern bustle, Iran's religious leadership remains ubiquitous. Paintings of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, left, and Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic of Iran, on the wall of a government office in Tehran.
In contrast to the modern bustle, Iran's religious leadership remains ubiquitous. Paintings of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, left, and Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic of Iran, on the wall of a government office in Tehran.
Women do their shopping near the Bazar-e-Bozorg in Tehran. Iranian women have a great taste when it comes to fashion, but when out in public they have to cover their heads either by wearing a hijab or in this case, where women are wearing a chador. A chador is a full-body-length semicircle of fabric that is open down the front. This cloth is tossed over the woman's or girl's head, but then she holds it closed in the front.
Women do their shopping near the Bazar-e-Bozorg in Tehran. Iranian women have a great taste when it comes to fashion, but when out in public they have to cover their heads either by wearing a hijab or in this case, where women are wearing a chador. A chador is a full-body-length semicircle of fabric that is open down the front. This cloth is tossed over the woman's or girl's head, but then she holds it closed in the front.
View of Tehran from Alborz Mountain with Milad Tower also known as the "Roof of Tehran seen in the background. Earlier this year, President Hassan Rouhani voiced support for plans to pick another city as Iran’s political capital as part of a broader effort to decentralise the overcrowded Tehran. The greater Tehran area has a population of over 12 million.
View of Tehran from Alborz Mountain with Milad Tower also known as the "Roof of Tehran seen in the background. Earlier this year, President Hassan Rouhani voiced support for plans to pick another city as Iran’s political capital as part of a broader effort to decentralise the overcrowded Tehran. The greater Tehran area has a population of over 12 million.

All photos by Uzair Hasan Rizvi.