Israel and Iran confront each other on the small screen: Espionage and nuclear weapons in the TV series Tehran and Gando

Miriam Nissimov* 

ACIS Iran Pulse no. 110 |  August 16, 2020


Spoiler alert: This article reveals details about the ending of Tehran.


The series “Tehran,” which completed its first season in Israel last month, brought the Iranian nuclear threat into the world of televised entertainment. For the last two decades, Iran’s nuclear program has been at the forefront of Israeli intelligence assessments, its leaders’ talks with their counterparts around the world and in the media; now the creators of “Tehran” have packaged it as a television drama. The principle setting is the city of Tehran, which is presented as a site where Israeli secret agents, Iranian intelligence officers, young freedom-lovers, drug-using partygoers, and a handful of grumpy young people who support the regime’s ideology operate and collide.


About a year before “Tehran” was broadcast, the nuclear issue was at the center of another suspense series, “Gando,” which was produced by channel 3 of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and aired during the summer of 2019. The series, which was very popular in Iran, triggered a domestic political storm, even causing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to address a letter to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei protesting the negative presentation of the Foreign Ministry and its head (Tasnim News).


The coincidence of two spy series dealing with the intelligence angle of the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program being produced and broadcast in short succession sparks interest in a comparative perspective: how does each present the threat and what response does it offer?


Entertainment and Revolutionary Ideology

The creators of “Gando”, a series of 33 episodes, stressed that its plot is based primarily on intelligence documents dealing with the case of Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American dual citizen and Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post (Javan), who was arrested in July 2014 on espionage charges. His arrest came at the height of talks between the Islamic Republic and the super powers led by US President Barack Obama (5+1 Group) to formulate an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Rezaian was held for eighteen months, and released on January 16, 2016 as part of the conditions set by the US administration for lifting the sanctions on Iran.


At the time, Rezaian’s case occupied the international media, which claimed that the allegations against him were unfounded, and that his arrest was the result of political rivalry between opponents of the nuclear deal and members of the government led by President Hassan Rouhani who worked to promote it. It seems that this rivalry motivated production of the series, and later became a major reason for the political storm that the broadcast provoked. Senior government officials, including President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, have hinted that the Revolutionary Guards are behind the production, and that their goal was to slam the government and damage its image. The series presented the Foreign Ministry and the minister at its head as submissive and easy-to-manipulate figures, and even incorporated hints about the involvement of the President’s Office in disrupting the investigation of those suspected of espionage (IRNA).


The plot of “Gando” focuses on Mohammad (played by Vahid Rahbani), a counter-intelligence officer in his thirties; diligent, determined, knowledgeable in intelligence work, and straightforward, who has a solid, ideological view of the strategic threats facing Iran. As the protagonist, he often becomes means through which the Islamic Republic's propaganda is conveyed to viewers. In one scene, Mohammad opens with an assertive monologue claiming that the US and its allies’ economic sanctions and their frequent statements against Iran’s nuclear program are all an excuse, and that the Western countries’ real goal is to overthrow the Islamic regime. Any acquiescence by Iran to their demands regarding the nuclear program will not actually satisfy the West, the protagonist persistently proclaims, and any compromise will lead to new demands.


Therefore, the threat at the center of “Gando” is not the one that aims at Iran’s nuclear project, but rather the threat that endangers the regime’s stability and resilience. The agents of this threat are journalists, directors, artists and academics who are operated by hostile elements. In the series, they are embodied by media figures, like a journalist with dual citizenship (based on the real-life Jason Rezaian) and the head of the Iran desk at the American embassy in Dubai. The spy network they are setting up includes, among others, a director who collaborated with foreign TV networks and a photographer, whose operators sent her, in exchange for photographs she took at nuclear industry sites, to an international exhibition.


Watching episodes of “Gando” gives the impression that the creators support an uncompromising struggle against those who seek to undermine Iran’s national resilience, and that the modus operandi for combating the security threat lies in the symbolic meaning of the series’ name. “Gando” is a nickname for the mugger crocodile (scientific name: Crocodylus palustris), which is found in the Indian subcontinent and in Sistan and Baluchestan Province of southeastern Iran. The nickname, which in the local Baluchi dialect means “shorty,” was given to this species because it is relatively small compared to other crocodiles. According to the director of the series, the name “Gando” was chosen because of the patience and forbearance that characterize the mugger crocodile when it lays in wait for prey, which is why it is also known as “the lurking hunter.” These features, added the director, characterize the activities of undercover agents who work to thwart espionage activities (Moj News).


Love against all odds

Compared to Gando, which deals with an internal intelligence unit that works to stymie threats at home, the Israeli series “Tehran” sends the protagonist into enemy territory to attack it from without. However, the creators use the mission as a starting point to turn one's gaze to the enemy, and exposing its human face. Once that face is revealed, the attack mission becomes a journey of lovers. In the opening episode, agent Tamar Rabinian (played by Niv Sultan) is sent to the heart of an enemy country, where she is supposed to sabotage its infrastructure in order to allow an Israeli attack from the air. However, she falls in love with the young Iranian she was supposed to use to carry out her mission.


The plot later reveals that another central character in the series, Yael Kadosh (played by Liraz Charhi) who serves as Tamar’s commander and operator, had a similar love affair years earlier during her stay in the city on an operational mission. In the final episode of the series, we learn that in Yael’s case, the love affair apparently influenced her actions and caused her to cross the lines. Both Tamar and Yael are also portrayed as being mired in a complex identity dilemma. They were both born in Iran but left at a young age ; now their attitude towards the country is one of yearning and longing.


Intelligence officer Faraz Kamali (played by actor Shaun Toub), who leads the pursuit of agents working on behalf of Israeli and is determined to capture them, is the main enemy on whom the Tehran’s plotline focuses. He is portrayed on screen as a devoted and loving spouse, whose dedication to his ailing wife threatens his loyalty to his homeland and the intelligence organization in which he serves. The series portrays the city of Tehran as a city of lovers, people who fight for their love against all odds. The Islamic Republic of Iran, the sovereign entity working to advance the ideological agenda which its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini claimed is a war of the oppressed (masta‘afin) against the oppressors (masakhbarin), is marginal and almost completely absent from the television portrait of the city for which the series is named.


Analogizing from the plot of Tehran to the relationship between Israel and Iran, recall that “forbidden love” or “a forbidden affair” were nicknames that Israel used for its relationship with Iran during regime of Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979). In those years, in addition to the geopolitical and strategic interests that linked the two countries, Israel sought to ground the relationship on a foundation of a shared ancient history. The symbol of this ancient connection was King Cyrus, who was given the title “Anointed One” in Jewish Scriptures, while in Iran he was perceived as the founder of the ancient Persian monarchy, and an exemplar of an enlightened ruler whose legacy was praised by the messengers of God. Although Israeli interpretation of Cyrus as a symbol was not adopted by Pahlavi ruler, this myth played a central role in Israeli discourse about Iran at the time.


In the forty-one years since the fall of the Shah’s regime, the love story between the two countries has given way to uncompromising hostility, and Israeli discourse has forgotten Cyrus’ legacy as a symbol of the connection between the two peoples. In recent years, some have sought to suggest the figure of Haman from the Book of Esther as a symbolic figure who reflects the current relationship between the two countries. This effort received international attention when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used it in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 2015, and compared the statements of Iranian leaders about destroying Israel to a plot hatched by the evil Haman to exterminate the Jews in the 127 provinces ruled by King Ahasuerus. Rather than these opposing symbols, the king whose proclamation made it possible for the Jews to return to Zion in 538 BCE versus the court minister who symbolizes the danger of extermination hovering over the head of the people, “Tehran” seemingly seeks to offer an alternative in the spirit of the current era. The alternative moves its gaze from the mythical world to the virtual world, a world in which two hackers can meet even though she is an agent of the Israeli Mossad, Iranian in origin, sensitive and human and he is a young Iranian who seeks freedom and is groaning under the political oppression in his country. This encounter and the love story that develops are – according to the series – what could, perhaps, defuse the bomb and succeed where the intelligence mission failed.


Dr. Miriam Nissimov is the coordinator of the ACIS Program for Iranian Jews in Israel and a lecturer at the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at the Tel Aviv University 

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ACIS Iran Pulse No. 110 ● August 16,  2020 

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