Israeli TV Spy Thriller ‘Tehran’ Flouts Stereotypes About Iran

Apple TV+ premieres series by the director of “Homeland” that captivated Israelis this summer.

Niv Sultan in Tehran.
Niv Sultan in Tehran. Apple TV+

When the Mossad spy and computer hacker Tamar Rabinyan slips into Iran on a mission to help demolish its nuclear program, she’s on familiar ground. Chased in the Israeli television thriller Tehran through the Iranian capital’s gritty alleys and markets, the young agent ducks into a safe house that her bosses in Tel Aviv know nothing about. Answering the door with a look of haunted shock is her old Aunt Arezoo, who had stayed behind in Tehran with a Muslim husband when the rest of her Jewish family fled the country decades before.

Of all the improbable plot twists that captivated Israelis this summer through the series’s eight episodes on the Israeli Public Broadcasting network, finding sanctuary with a long-lost Iranian relative may have been the most plausible. Some 140,000 Israelis trace their roots to Iran, including an ex-president, a former army chief of staff, and a small constellation of pop stars. Even today, as the two countries regard each other as mortal enemies, about 10,000 Jews live in Iran as an officially protected minority, down from 80,000 in the 1940s.

That visceral connection comes across in Tehran during a kitchen scene when the Israeli spy, returning to her birthplace, confidently scoops luscious handfuls of minced lamb, scallions, rice, and mint leaves from a bowl. Molding the mixture spiced with cardamom into perfect koofteh, or Persian meatballs, Rabinyan bonds over the family recipe with her deeply conflicted aunt and inadvertently exposes herself to scrutiny from the Iranian secret police, who have been tracking her from the day she landed at Imam Khomeini International Airport disguised as a flight attendant.

Much of Tehran’s appeal in Israel was in its flouting of stereotypes about life in a strict Islamic society.

The series, whose U.S. and international release on Apple TV+ is set for Sept. 25, is built on such tender screw-ups. Under the main story arc of an epic Israeli assault against Iran’s nuclear reactor, the television drama is animated by botched elements of basic spycraft, ill-advised romantic entanglements, and a mental chess game between the opposing intelligence agency chiefs. Most of the dialogue is in Farsi, with snippets in Hebrew and English. Stock aerial footage grounds the action inside the Iranian capital while scenes filmed by the Israeli production company in Athens present a rough approximation of downtown Tehran.

If the home audience in Israel wasn’t already intrigued, the TV series had some uncanny real-life echoes when it aired in July at the same time as a string of explosions rocked Iran’s assembly plant for nuclear centrifuges in Natanz and other sites across the country. Israel is suspected to have been behind the blasts but has neither accepted nor denied it. Like many of the best modern spy tales, Tehran gets the viewer so close to current politics that the plot unfolding on the screen could—with a bit of imagination—be happening outside.

Much of Tehran’s appeal in Israel was in its flouting of stereotypes about life in a strict Islamic society and its suggestion that Iran’s rebellious youth culture is not unlike Israel’s own. In a tightly wound performance by the Israeli actor Niv Sultan, Rabinyan infiltrates the underground scene by flirting on the dark web, where she engages with a student activist and fellow hacker named Milad. Played with puppy-dog geekiness by the Iranian British actor Shervin Alenabi, he guides her through a methamphetamine-blurred world where counterrevolution is galvanized and sexual boundaries are crossed. In turn, she manipulates him to help crack Iran’s aerial defense system and clear the way for an Israeli attack. It’s often unclear who’s outsmarting whom.

Tehran is hardly the first television drama to focus on how Israel’s intelligence agencies operate in the Muslim world. In fact, the series is the latest in an immensely successful Hollywood ecosystem spawned by the Israeli producer Gideon Raff, who created Showtime’s Emmy-winning Homeland and the Israeli original on which it is loosely based. Sacha Baron Cohen starred last year in The Spy, another Raff series co-produced by Netflix that tells the true-life story of the Egyptian-born Mossad agent Eli Cohen, who penetrated the highest echelons of the Syrian government before his 1965 public hanging in a Damascus square. Tehran’s co-creator Moshe Zonder was previously head writer on Fauda, the Netflix series about Israeli commandos posing as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

There is another, deeper reason that Tehran—with its nuanced, sometimes humorous, and often moving portrayal of Israeli-Iranian connections—has struck such a chord in Israel. Never since the country’s founding in 1948 have so many Israelis sought to connect with their Muslim neighbors and vice versa. Business, government, and personal ties are growing, and peace among historical enemies—or at least a growing normalization—is in the air. Today’s Israelis are looking at their region with fresh eyes and renewed interest, which helps explain both the series’s success and why its nuanced take on Iran would have been unlikely just a few years ago.

Rapprochement also reflects generational change, an annoyance with the lingering hatreds of the past.

The sudden fascination even with an archenemy such as Iran is a true turnaround for Israeli society, whose national identity has long been wedded to the idea of being a civilized island of Western democracy in a savage Middle East. Shaped by decades of war and hostility, this view that Israel isn’t really a part of the region also reflected the fact that the country’s founding elite of Ashkenazi Jews came largely from Europe. Yet the largest ethnic group in Israel today is Mizrahi Jews, whose parents or grandparents fled from the Middle East or North Africa, just like the family of the main character in Tehran.

Though the series focuses attention on Persian Jews, other Jewish communities in Israel are examining their own past in the Muslim world. And they’re increasingly finding that interest returned. Countries that once expelled their Jewish citizens are taking tentative steps toward reestablishing connections. Some, such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia, are resurrecting abandoned synagogues and seeking ways to promote Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Other signs that boundaries are being torn down include the first flight of the Israeli airline El Al between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi—across Saudi Arabia no less—and a Saudi television series broadcast in April that explored the Arabian Peninsula’s Jewish heritage.

A scene from <em>Tehran</em>.

A scene from Tehran. Apple TV+

Rapprochement also reflects generational change, an annoyance with the lingering hatreds of the past. As their grandparents who bear the trauma and bitterness of fleeing Arab persecution die out, younger Israelis without the emotional baggage are developing relationships with their neighbors—often online but also through personal encounters in the youth hostels of Asia, Europe, and South America. In parallel, young Emiratis and Saudis seem to be increasingly—and openly—asking why they need to carry an archaic hatred that their parents felt for Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. To them, the Arab-Israeli wars are ancient history.

The tantalizing aroma of regional acceptance—perhaps even integration—is in the air. At a White House ceremony this month, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed normalization deals with Israel and agreed to develop what its leaders said would be a warm relationship. The UAE never had an indigenous Jewish population but has enthusiastically encouraged expatriate Jews to lay down roots, rebranding itself through a doctrine of tolerance. The government has commissioned a monumental interfaith center in Abu Dhabi housing a mosque, church, and synagogue. In nearby Qatar, the organizing committee for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has tapped a New York rabbi to ensure that kosher food is available for Jewish fans.

The series has given Israelis a taste of forbidden fruit—or, in this case, cardamom-infused meatballs.

Nuances don’t seem to exist in public dialogue between Israel and Iran. Straight out of a Marvel comic book, leaders of both countries paint each other as diabolical founts of irredeemable evil. Much like in the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Israeli children grow up with deep-seated fears that their country will be obliterated by Iranian missiles. Iran’s leaders provide plenty of material to make Israelis believe their threats, parading laser-guided missiles through the streets of Tehran in the annual Quds Day rally and leading chants that promise to liberate Jerusalem from the Zionist enemy. Still, the show’s Israeli broadcaster has put a version of Tehran with Farsi subtitles on its webpage aimed at viewers in Iran, where newspapers denounced the series as anti-Iranian even before it came out.

Yet the region’s realities are dramatically shifting, as the U.S.-brokered peace deals aptly illustrate. While Iran has been Israel’s implacable enemy for more than 40 years, the Tehran spy series pushes back against the idea that adversaries are destined to hate each other. In emphasizing the similarities and connections between the two peoples, it has given Israelis a taste of forbidden fruit—or, in this case, cardamom-infused meatballs. After a summer marked by the blurring of fiction and reality, the series offers a veiled nudge for Israelis to find common ground with a new generation in Iran. To them, and to viewers in the rest of the world, it suggests that even the most unthinkable of alliances could lie somewhere on the horizon.

Jonathan H. Ferziger is a Jerusalem-based non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @jhferziger

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