In July 2020, whilst we were all tucked away at home bored to tears, several explosions and fires erupted from the Natanz nuclear complex in Iran. Many immediately pointed fingers at the Israeli spy agency Mossad, citing its previous interminglings with chemical plants, missile production facilities, and energy programs. Iran had been utilizing high-speed centrifuges to enrich uranium to such an extent, Israeli intelligence claimed, as could be used to fuel an atomic bomb. Turns out Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, was right to recite that spine-chilling Hindu scripture: “Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
These events set the stage for an Israeli espionage series called Tehran, which was airing in Israel synchronously with the series of nuclear blasts. It was ironic and petrifying, but, on the bright side, there was now a thrilling eight-part getaway from our monotonous quarantine lives, although this alternate reality happened to not be so alternate.
Tehran follows an Iranian-born, Israeli-raised Mossad agent named Tamar Rabinyan as she returns to her birthplace on her very first undercover mission. Her task is to cripple the Iranian power grid and dismantle the nuclear program in preparation for an Israeli air assault. Sound familiar?
Now, the premise itself isn’t revolutionary—we had Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Spy, Homeland (with some of the same cast, in fact, such as Shaun Toub and Navid Negahban), Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Bond films, Tinker Tanker Soldier Spy, Fauda (whose head writer is the creator of Tehran), and quite a few others. What begets Tehran’s departure from the strained genres of spy fiction and political thriller is a handful of camouflaged yet masterfully developed subtleties.
For one, there isn’t an overabundance of psychologically and physically tortured men. Instead, a woman without emotional baggage to be tended to anchors the story. Tamar’s Achilles’ heel isn’t a ridiculous bond she sealed in return for a pound of flesh but rather her own ambition. She is vulnerable because she is passionate. She’s not a sarcastic killer like Bond or a bipolar genius like Carrie Mathison. She’s but a morally ambivalent, mournful, and homesick woman trying to get her job done and, in so doing, trying not to get murdered (that would be unfortunate… since there would be no plot). She’s just like you and me, and that’s the appeal. The narrative, stripped down to its bare bones, is centered around characters who must decide who they are as they navigate different political and personal identities.
Also intriguing is how the story uses themes such as death, romance, betrayal, dueling governments, dual loyalties, cat-and-mouse chases, and an agent gone rogue to encapsulate the real-life tension between Israel and Iran, both in a diplomatic and cultural sense. Although the series was intended for an Israeli audience, there’s a lot of delicious pathos feeding into the exposé that the show serves as for Americans. It opens a door to uncharted territory for us, and it still manages to entertain. That’s revolutionary.
After wriggling into the capital, a perilous miscalculation is made and Tamar must escape into the night. She’s left to fend for herself in a city that isn’t exactly known for its hospitality toward Israelis, especially the spying kind. Oh, and she’s being pursued by an Iranian security agent who’s indifferent to whether she’s captured dead or alive. Evidently, her life is a cakewalk.
As she’s running through the city and Mossad plan to smuggle her back into Israel, she crosses paths with an array of fascinating Iranians: corrupt cops, drug dealers, determined dissidents, unwavering supporters, trapped commonfolk, honorable judges, Iranian Jews who have converted to Islam, and Muslims working for Israel. And of course, she gets caught in a tangle of old family roots and stumbles upon a love interest—a pro-democracy activist and fellow hacker. Both of these subplots are integral to fleshing out Tamar’s persona, and they ground her as an individual whenever she feels lost at sea. The fact that she taps into her Iranian heritage and mingles with young people fighting for their rights in a blossoming foreign city is in itself unlike anything I’ve ever seen on screen. At their core, the subplots provide insight into the power of protest and defy stereotypes associated with the Middle East. Add then that this storytelling is layered with an allusion to the prolonged, simmering conflict between two nations, and the series is a masterpiece.
Moshe Zonder, the creator of Tehran, took every technicality seriously, from the hierarchy within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, to the social strata represented by rhinoplasty, to the fashion choices of the rebellious Iranian students, to the charity boxes you find on the streets for the needy, and finally to the social standing of the country’s lingering 25,000 Jews. Even the dialogue is authentic, as it is predominantly in the Hebrew and Persian languages. As Bong Joon-ho, the director of Parasite, said in his acceptance speech at the 2020 Oscars, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” This couldn’t be more true than in the case of Tehran.
We bear witness to how an Israeli production portrays Iran and to our surprise, the series doesn’t warp into a geopolitical horror show or, even worse, a documentary. The attention to detail is sensational, but it’s more than historical and logistical accuracy that differentiates Tehran from other espionage thrillers; it is the bits of human frailty and connection that the series gets right. Mossad is capable of unappetizing violence, we are informed, and Iranians are never once reduced to submissive monsters. The series draws a meticulous line between people and government, and by never propping up one culture or nation on a moral pedestal, it impedes the audience from picking sides. It is not a persuasive piece meant to present blatantly “good” or “bad” guys each with their own pristine Freudian excuses at the ready. It tells it like it is.
My favorite character of the series happens to be the “villain”: Kamali. He’s an incredibly talented security agent whose devotion to his country clashes with his adoration for his witty, but sadly sickly wife. At the end of the day, Kamali can never strike a balance between his personal life and his political beliefs, and this is more than heartbreaking.
Tehran deceives at first, convinces us it is just another unmemorable, action-focused political spy fiction to occupy our quarantine time. We learn, however, it’s much, much more. It is a reflection on a brutal reality with which most of us in America hadn’t, until now, been familiar. It is a demand that we transcend such evils as Oppenheimer’s Frankensteinian atomic bomb, and that we do so together. It is a cry for us to bury the grudges and prejudices we hold against one another. It is a call for empathy, not action, and, above all else, it is a beautiful tale of humanity.