“Once you’re in, there’s no way out.” Tehran and the politics of erasure

by Anisa Hosseinnezhad

“From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”
― Edward W. Said, Orientalism (284)

Tehran (2020) is an Israeli espionage-thriller television series created by Moshe Zonder, writer and producer of the Netflix series, Fauda (2015). The Tehran series originally ran on the Israeli state-owned channel Kan 11, and first aired in Israel on June 22nd, 2020. Apple bought the show released it on Apple TV+ on September 25th as an original series. I first learned about the show through a promotional email I received: “Weekend Watch: Tehran, your new spy obsession, is now playing on Apple TV+.”

This image was attached to the promotional email I received from Apple. Under the Apple TV logo on the top right corner, it read’s “Once you’re in, there’s no way out”. This sentiment echoes throughout the show signaling the sentiments of entrapment that the Iranians in the show feel about the situation within their country and the similar entrapment Tamar, an Israeli spy, finds herself in. Though Tamar’s mobility is portrayed to be a much more feasible feat than the Iranian’s she meets in Iran.

The image attached to the email portrays the protagonist, Tamar Robinyan, an Israeli Mossad hacker and agent who travels to Tehran under a false identity with the mission to destroy Iran’s supposed nuclear reactor. She stands below the Tehran landmark Azadi Tower and museum. Smoke from explosions is reflected in her sunglasses. In the reflection, we can also see Milad (or Tehran) Tower, the 24th-tallest freestanding structure in the world, and a monument of national pride for Iranians. The image puts explosions in close proximity to Iranian cultural sites. To me, it brings to mind the now deleted tweets of U.S. President Donald Trump in the aftermath of Ghasem Soleimani’s assassination by the U.S. military in January of 2020. He was speaking to the possibility of Iran’s retaliation:

“Targeted 52 Iranian sites...some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, will be hit very fast and very hard.”[1][open endotes in new window]

The now deleted tweet thread of the former U.S. President Donald Trump, in the aftermath of Ghasem Soleimani’s Unjust assassination. Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded in his own tweet, warning that such strikes would violate international law.

Though Tamar never succeeds in her mission or cause the explosions depicted in this promotional image, nor does she ever visit the Azadi Tower, such implicit threat to Iranian culture and sovereignty looms large over the show.

Tehran was set to be released globally through Apple TV+ at the end of September.  However, Apple’s definition of global excludes many countries, including Iran. According to Apple's own website, residents from 166 countries can access Apple’s app store and products. Amongst the 28 countries with no access are Syria, North Korea, Sudan, Cuba, Libya, Palestine, and Iran, many of which face sanctions from the United States.[2] Due to sanctions, Apple products are not sold directly in Iran though they are imported by independent vendors.

Until recently Apple users in Iran had access to the Apple App Store. However, on March 15th, 2018, Apple implemented a total block of traffic coming from the country and iPhone users in Iran discovered that they were no longer able to access the app store.[3] Such exclusion of Iran and Iranians from access to globally distributed products is nothing new. Ironically, a lack of access to Tehran by the viewers who are also its most depicted subjects calls into question capitalist definitions of the global and serves as a reminder of the hollowness of the show's proclaimed multiculturalism in its production and distribution.

That is, Tehran claims to be a multinational, multicultural production. In response to an interview question “How real is Tehran the show?” Shaun Toub, the Iranian-American actor who plays an Iranian military agent in Tehran, declared,

“we have been blessed to be a part of three different cultures…(the show) was a love fest that came together and the world will enjoy the series.”[4]

Unsurprisingly, Toub’s response does not give any insight into the reality or authenticity of Tehran nor any explanation of its situation or setting. Instead the show’s espoused multinationalism becomes here an empty signifier of authenticity. The show’s multinational and cultural quality was emphasized time and again in interviews by the producers, actors, and creators of the show. Filmed in Greece and Israel with a cast that is a mix of Iranian diasporic and emerging Israeli actors, and funded by Israel, U.S., and Canada, the show is indeed a multicultural, multinational “love fest.” One country exempted from this lovefest feels very present, however—Iran and the Iranians who there.

I want to speak about Tehran as a cultural product, and the conflict between its proposed transnationalism, and its exclusion of likely the most central nation in the show: Iran. I will study the two competing “nationals” implicated in Tehran’s “transnationalism Israeli nationalism and Iranian nationalism. I see a performance of Iranian nationalism that results from the show’s erasure of Iranian nationals—from its inception through its distribution. This erasure, packaged under the narrative auspice of curiosity and authenticity, results in an imagined performance of Iranian nationalism. It enacts a political imaginary vital to the continuation of western imperial plans for the region. As I explore how a U.S., Canadian, and Israeli-funded show imagines and performs the nationalism of their adversary, Iran, I hope to examine how this portrayal reveals that imperial perspective itself.

In addition to its espionage action line, Tehran represents the mobility of Iranian citizens, austerity in Iranian society, and repression of the Iranian government, particularly as it relates to land control and mobility. These scripted aspects of Iran are not a glimpse into the reality of Iran or Iranian nationalism. Instead, they are a product of and a clear glimpse into how the show’s producers perceive the realities of their own nation, Israel. When Tehran attempts to depict the reality of Iranian repression and nationalism, the show runners instead return to Israel’s own violence and project it onto their imagination of Iran. My reading does not exempt the Iranian government from their own austerity and repression; however, it allows us to find nuances in a geopolitical situation in which no nuance is allowed. Though I plan to analyze the show on a textual and ideological level, I also hope to use Tehran as a case study to examine broader issues of Iranian sovereignty amidst the global distribution of U.S. media and culture. [08]

Iran Hostage Crisis student demonstration, Washington, D.C. (1979) Source: Marion Trikosko/ Library of Congress. No known restrictions on publication. Though the Anti-Iranian sentiments did not start with the 1979 Iranian revolution, the hostage crisis of 79 shed a light on the extent of the racism against Iranians in the west.

“To write about the one who's supposed to be my enemy”

A fascination with Iran and Iranian culture runs deep in western countries. Until the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the west had free reign access to Iranian natural resources and culture. But since then, due to Iran’s geopolitical position in the region, the absence of that kind of access looms large over western culture and media. In fact, this absence is the result of the total blockade of Iran through sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations.

Racism is also at work, and a useful tool for imperial ideology. Yousef Baker explained the reductionism at work in this kind of ideology as he spoke at the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies:

“Iranians are racialized as Muslims; the racialization of Muslims is about asserting western liberalism as a universalist ideal. The racialization of Muslims in this current conjuncture is about creating legitimacy for a neoliberal state, that is masquerading as liberal. To avoid anti-Muslim racism, many Iranians distance themselves by asserting difference such as, ‘we're not Muslim or we're not bad foreigners,’ and thus as a strategy to avoid racism they actually reify the very racial project that they want to avoid.”[5] 

In the past decade, speculations like “who are Iranians?” and “what is their country like?” have transitioned into a new rhetoric—to separate Iranian citizens from their government. Some in the Iranian diaspora, as mentioned in Baker’s research, try to distance themselves from the Iranian government to avoid racism and alienation. Another important factor on a governmental level has facilitated this rhetorical change—and in large helped solidify it in the eyes of the western public—has been the governmental address from around the world to the Iranian public that differentiates between the people living in Iran and the Islamic Republic that governs them.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama started this form of presidential address in 2009. Though his first address during Nowruz (Iranian New Year) was directed to Iranians and the Iranian government, it was nonetheless titled as just “The President's Message to the Iranian People.”[6] By the last years of his presidency, Obama directed his address to only Iranian citizens and Iranian-American Patriots, as he called them. In fact, these addresses opened up political discussions between the two countries, one that according to some resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. At the same time, Obama’s rhetoric helped further separate the Iranian public from their government in the eyes of the west.

This binary overview of Iranian society has serious consequences. It is a dangerous outlook, one that helps to solidify the already racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric so prevalent in western societies. This binary sees Iranians who advocate for the sovereignty of their country, who speak out against foreign invasion, and who (sometimes but not always) are Muslim, as supporting the Islamic Republic of Iran’s repression, and it labels them as government puppets.

This contrast between differentiation and binary ideology is the spirit with which the creators of Tehran approached the show. In an interview Moshe Zonder, one of the creators of the show, referred to his intentions for creating a show about Iran as follows,

“For me, I wanted to write about Iran for years because it's always interesting to me to cross borders physically and mentally, and to write about the one who's supposed to be my enemy, the one supposed to, you know, kill me. To understand the narrative of the other tribe this was fascinating and exciting.”[7]

Dana Eden, the co-creator of the show in the same interview, refers to their vision of the show as follows,

“This show is all about humanity. We really wanted to show the other side of Iran, outside of politics, outside of the regime. We wanted to show the world of young people, of the culture, of the music, of the human beings who want to be free. I think that we really tried to make an authentic glimpse into the current Iranian culture.” [8]

The show’s actors and producers emphasize they are showing the other side of Iran and Iranian culture, separating the show from politics, and the people of Iran from their governing body. That they frequently mention this separation of Tehran’s premise from politics is of course ironic. The script and dramatic action are built entirely around the very political rhetoric of Iran as a nuclear threat. In that way Tehran’s apolitical narrative and ethos are uncomfortably close Netenyahu’s and the Israeli government’s. Nonetheless, the show’s presumed separation from politics and the Iranian government gives an aura of authenticity to Tehran’s depiction of Iran and Iranians.

When reviewed in the western media, Tehran was mostly praised for having a nuanced and authentic view of Iran. Magazines like Foreign Policy called it a “nuanced, sometimes humorous,”[9] show about the Israel-Iran relation: “Flouts Stereotypes.”[10] John Powers, in his article on National Public Radio (NPR), wrote that Tehran “pointedly avoids reducing Iranians to monsters, carefully making a distinction between the people and their government.”[11] In that way, western media’s enthusiastic praise of the show and its creators brings to mind their reception of Fauda, another show produced and written by Moshe Zonder. Much like Tehran, Fauda was received with enthusiasm in the United States for its nuanced depiction of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Another low resolution, shaky image of Tehran. The quality of these real pictures is poor in contrast to the crisp and high quality reproductions of Tehran in Athens. Mixed with the fake Tehran built by the Israeli creators in Athens, these images, though short in length, add to the fear and tension built into the show. This image was taken from the The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement’s website and their article on the Anti-Arab, warmongering nature of Fauda (2015) created by Moshe Zonder, the creator of Tehran. Fauda much like Tehran was received with enthusiasm for its nuanced reading of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, the show was heavily criticized by the Palestinian-led movement Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and many other Middle Eastern news outlets. BDS activists released a statement about Fauda, calling the show an “anti-Arab racist, Israeli propaganda tool that glorifies the Israeli military’s war crimes against the Palestinian people.”[12]

Interestingly, amidst all this, unlike the spy thrillers of the early 2000s,  Tehran does not reduce its enemy to monsters and faceless characters. In a review of the show for NPR, John Powers writes,

Tehran makes it clear that the Mossad is capable of unsavory violence, and it pointedly avoids reducing Iranians to monsters, carefully making a distinction between the people and their government.”[13]

One could commend the creators for not reducing Iranians to mere villains but note how once again, the critic returns to the phrase: “carefully making a distinction between the people and their government.” However, I do find the complexity of charater development important in terms of representation. For example, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agent, Kamali, played by Shawn Toub, is one of the most well-received characters in the show. And he is shown as caught between his devotion to his duty as a government agent and his devotion to his wife receiving cancer treatment, who is then kidnapped by Mossad.

Powers compares and likens Kamali’s internal struggle to that of the Mossad agent Tamar, who feels conflicted about Mossad’s brutal treatment of her Iranian hacker friend. However, for a viewer to make this comparison and to appreciate Tamar’s mournfulness, as Power’s describes it, only gets us so far. The agent’s capacity for such mournfulness serves to legitimate her mission which, as the creators acknowledge, has a deep parallel to the actual destruction of Iranian infrastructure of by the Israeli state. Further, much of the brutality of Mossad that she reacts to, the minutiae of the mission (versus its broader goals) is then scripted to be the responsibility of her handler and mentor who we come to find out is an double agent for Iran. Even when the show depicts the brutality of Mossad, the narrative line makes Iran ultimately responsible for that.

Faraz Kamali (played by Shaun Toub) is the head of Investigations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran in the show. His character is complex, with humility, desire, and at times an unquestioned patriotism and national loyalty.. One of the ways in which Kamali’s character is set apart from other Iranian men in the show, is his relationship with his wife, a secular woman. He jokes with his wife, ends the phone conversations with kisses, and is openly intimate. His character stands in contrast to the portrayal of other Iranian men who see women as objects. Yael Kadosh was an Israeli Mossad agent who served as Tamar Rabinyan's commanding officer and handler, overseeing Rabinyan's deep cover operation in Tehran. Kadosh was a double agent working for the Iranian government. In the last episode, her cover is blown and she tries to kill Tamar. Her meddling in the operation is what leads to the failure of Tamar’s mission. Instead of having the Israeli Fighter Jets pass the Iranian border unnoticed to blow up the Iranian nuclear facilities, the Iranian military shoot the jets down.