TEHRAN, Iran – The contradictions that make Iran so hard for Westerners to understand are on view as soon as one arrives at Tehran airport.

Since we fingerprint Iranians when they enter America, anyone holding an American passport is escorted the length of Tehran airport to be fingerprinted. Each finger is individually pressed on an ink pad and pressed again on white paper, leaving stains. But the whole process is accompanied by smiles and apologies. The Iranian relationship with the United States may be problematic, but Iranians are happy to greet Americans face to face.

Comprehending Iranian contradictions has never been more important than now, when the United States and Iran are at sharp odds over Tehran’s nuclear energy program. The problem is compounded by the harsh rhetoric of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian leader is often described in the West as an omnipotent strongman bent on regional domination; some U.S. commentators have described him as a new Hitler. This is a gross misrepresentation. A visit to Tehran reveals that Ahmadinejad does not have unlimited power. Nor are ordinary Iranians yearning for nukes.

In Tehran, people have much more mundane concerns. The young want to maintain the freedoms won during the past several years. So far, the Iranian president has not clamped down on the loosening of women’s dress codes: Young women wear short, tight coats instead of enveloping black robes, and their scarves slide back over exposed hair. Couples still hold hands in public.

(And by the way, the rampant rumor that Iran’s parliament passed a law decreeing that religious minorities must wear special dress is unfounded. A draft law was passed, but it says absolutely nothing about a dress code for minorities. It calls for the government to encourage clothing that conforms with Iranian culture and to urge, not require, men and women to wear such clothes.)

With the arrest of the widely known philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, Ahmadinejad has started a campaign of intimidation against intellectuals with Western contacts. But he must continue to woo his own constituency – the poor and the devout – whom he promised a share of Iran’s oil wealth. Those are the promises people care most about – not nukes.

Travel around Tehran and you realize why. The business and clerical elite of North Tehran live in dramatic apartment towers that look out at spectacular mountains. In the city’s south, people struggle to get by in crowded apartment blocks and cope with the smog and horrendous traffic jams. Young people can’t find jobs; the growth rate is falling; inflation runs at least a 15 percent clip; investment is minimal, and talented Iranians send their capital and children out to the West.

Ahmadinejad promised to raise pensions and salaries and establish a “love fund” that gives loans to young couples. The poor and the devout are waiting for him to deliver. But populists usually fail in their promises – even those floating on an oil bonanza. So the Iranian president has made the nuclear issue into one of national pride. The state-controlled media ceaselessly promote the message that the West wants to deprive Iran of sophisticated nuclear technology that will help its economy.

The Iranian president, whose formative years were spent fighting in the brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, is trying to re-create the feeling of wartime crisis by stressing the standoff on the nuclear issue. Yet there are limits to his control of the nuclear issue. Inside Iran, that issue comes under the aegis of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and his National Security Council. Their relationship with Ahmadinejad is murky, but the president does not call the shots.

Outside Iran, the Arab street may cheer his anti-Israel rhetoric, but they will never follow a Persian Shiite leader as they once followed Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. And in Tehran, the population shows little interest in returning to a war footing.

The ubiquitous billboards around town that show portraits of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war are fading, replaced by ads for Toyota and Samsung. Iranians who grasp that a failure to negotiate the nuclear issue might lead to more sanctions are worried; some ask me in whispers if America will bomb their country.

The way Americans looks at Ahmadinejad’s power is not the way it’s seen in Tehran – where people are used to unraveling contradictions that perplex the West.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.