Tehran – the TV Series

There. I saw it. An ad for Tehran, the much-ballyhooed Israeli TV series that was supposed to be even more full of suspense and tension than Fauda. I swore that I saw the advertisement on the TV screen when we were scrolling to decide what to watch for the evening. It seemed to have disappeared. I could not find it again. When I was about to give up, across the screen at the very bottom appeared a promotional clip on Tehran. It was on AppleTV and not Prime or HBO where I had been looking. Tehran had premiered on Zan 11 channel in Israel on 22 June 2020 and opened in North America on 25 September.

Fauda had focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had last written about the third series of Fauda in a blog in 2018 (21 June). It was about undercover work in the West Bank by IDF’s Duvdevan Counter-Terrorism Unit to find terrorists and was told from the perspective of both sides in the conflict. Fauda was a terrific series, not only for its taut drama, its excitement and its plot twists, but for its very interesting developments of character and relatively honest portrayal of both sides in the conflict. But whereas Fauda alternated between Hebrew and Arabic with a smattering of English, Tehran is mostly in Farsi with intermittent episodes in Hebrew, but more often in English. So you had better like subtitles, especially since the translations often went by before I had a chance to finish reading.

Tehran is not another Fauda. The latter relied on the old standard view of the dedicated detective, this time working undercover, who sacrifices his family and his personal life for his work. He is an Israeli Bosch working on security issues rather than pursuing the more typical serial killers. The series was gritty and down to earth, The suspense relied on the old-fashioned tools of spies – an instinct for masquerades, unbelievable courage juxtaposed to amateur bumbling. And a nose for clues. The series was excellent because it not only relied on an intriguing and beguiling plot, but on in-depth character development.

Tehran is very different. Though the two shows share the same creative team – Israeli producer Gideon Raff and creative writer, Moshe Zonder, the lead writer for Fauda, (and with Dana Eden, Maor Kohn and Omri Shenhar) – and although both shows overlap in production skills, they are otherwise contrasting story lines and characters. Daniel Syrkin directed Tehran which starts with a very young Israeli couple on a flight from Jordan to Delhi on Jordanian airlines. What are they doing in Amman?

The air tickets from Amman to Delhi are half the price of those from Tel Aviv to Delhi. Immediately, we note the similarity to Fauda and initially may be led down a dead end by supposing that the two bumbling and frightened young Israelis will play a similar secular role as the amateur right-wing religious zealots in Fauda. Although they also run counter to type, they do not have the same function. I am giving very little away to say they are a tease, serving a similar role to the zealots in offering counter-stereotypes to Israeli super-heroes, such as Eli Cohen played brilliantly by Sasha Baron Cohen in The Spy about the real Israeli Mossad agent who penetrated the heart of the Syrian military command and control centre.

The two young Israelis may have just finished their army service and are off to India on a common escape as with many ex-IDF personnel and a search for adventure.  But they are nervous. They are frightened. The girl, Shira (Tuti Ninio), has “Awesome” in bold letters on her sweatshirt as if advertising the series. They stumble and bumble, the boy even dropping his backpack on another airline passenger. But they soon play a very unintended role in the drama as the Jordanian plane is forced to make an emergency landing in Tehran. The Israeli Mossad cyber agents had messed with its electronic controls.

The two young backpackers are a somewhat comical feint as we watch another couple, a tall very well-dressed young man with a very fashionable beard accompanied by a woman in a burka whose eyes are the only thing we see. Those eyes are alert. They are sharp. While puzzled by this unlikely couple, we slowly realize that we are being introduced to the heroine.

Further, we soon learn that this film is not about unbelievably brave Israeli IDF commandos operating in occupied territory; this will be a story about spying on a very different level, about cyber warfare and its execution against very high level targets and taking place in a country dedicated to Israel’s elimination.  The operation will involve Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan) playing a very sophisticated hacker. The target is the electrical supply to the Iranian radar system so that Israeli pilots can bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. The Mossad command and control centre looks nothing like IDF’s. It is a warren of agents glued to TV screens in a large and very crowded high-tech facility.

As it turns out, Israel did bomb Iran’s nuclear assembly plant with its very sophisticated high-speed centrifuges in Natanz and other sites.  But this was in June after the series was completed. It will not be the first time that fiction adumbrates actual historical events. Except in the series, the effort is botched. But, as in Fauda, the other side, the counter-intelligence Iranian boss, is as dedicated and as sophisticated and as sharp as any Israeli agent so that one might suspect for a time that he was really an Israeli mole in the Iranian capital.

On the way in this spy story, we get glimpses of political Iran with a public hanging from a crane, dissident Iranians bitching about the high unemployment rate and wallowing in their underground music scene as gay men openly kiss and young girls shed their hijabs. They protest and are met by young Islamic zealots who support the revolution. But we are also introduced to Tamar’s aunt Arezoo (Esti Yerushalmi) who Tamar has not ever seen since Tamar’s whole family fled Iran decades earlier leaving behind the aunt who had married a Muslim jurist and had a religious Muslim daughter.

The domesticity is further reinforced when the aunt and niece work together in the kitchen to make Persian meatballs or koofteh by rolling minced lamb into spheres the size of a hardball mixed with onions and basmati rice, yellow split peas with mint, cardamom, turmeric and savory. “Perfect,” the aunt pronounces. Tamar is a cool as well as beautiful agent as well as an expert at rolling meatballs with the best of them just after she made the proverbial run through market stalls, stores and alleyways to escape the Iranian counterintelligence and police.

But all Jews in Tehran are not intermarried. 10,000 were left behind after 70,000 fled. They are a protected minority – unlike the Baha’is – with their own rabbis and houses of worship. Since we were able to watch only three of the eight episodes, which ran against our propensity to really binge watch – I was left wondering if we would be introduced to a segment of Jewish Iranian life in the urban areas of Athens which, with standard stock film, stood in for Tehran.

But we saw real F35s revving up to launch the bombing raid. We saw facsimiles of hacking that seemed, to an ignoramus like me, real enough. But there were very puzzling elements of the plot that seemed to be left over, like detritus from a bombing mission. Why did Tamar not simply get off the plane and enter Iran in her burka? Why did she have to switch costumes at Imam Khomeini International Airport with Zhila Gorbanifar, a Muslim Iranian electric company employee, disguised as a flight attendant?

Of course, stupid! The flight would not have been able to take off if one passenger had disappeared. There had to be a switch. Other puzzles emerge as the plot progressed but were cleared up soon enough. The main thrust of balance, as in Fauda, was maintained. The Iranian counter-intelligence lead agent, Faraz Kamali (Shaun Toub), was as sharp and dedicated and determined as any Israeli agent and he probably worked for The Revolutionary Guard. The Israeli agents inadvertently kept running into blocks, especially Masoud Tabrizi (Navid Negahban), the local Israeli Mossad operator with his travel agency front.

The plot to disrupt the electrical supply to the Iranian radar system goes awry when Zhila’s boss in the electrical company, with whom she was evidently having an affair, tries to rape Tamar, who relatively quickly dispatches him as any highly trained Israeli spy would be expected to do. Very quickly, everything goes asunder and the plot switches from a secret destruction mission to an escape story.

Though the plot is taut and thrilling and full of misadventures, I was looking for but had not yet found the personal tales and psychological costs to these agents that had been such an integral part of Fauda. Where are the troubled lives? There is certainly a suggestion that Zhila Gorbanifar was having an affair with her abusive boss, but this was a very minor sub-plot with nothing to do with espionage. The subplot of the love story begins in Episodes 4.

I now have to wait for the last 4 episodes. I prefer binging.

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