The plot of Israel’s latest spy series to screen internationally, “Tehran” premiering on Apple TV, seems straight from the news headlines and reflects the Jewish state’s deep enmity with Iran.
A young Mossad agent is sent on her first mission: to disable Iranian air defences so Israel can strike a reactor and deny the Islamic Republic the ability to make an atomic bomb.
The conservative press in Iran — a country which strongly denies that its nuclear programme is for anything other than civilian use — has slammed the show as Zionist propaganda.
Yet, while the notion of Israel and Iran cooperating on anything — let alone a television series — is unthinkable now, “Tehran” co-creator Moshe Zonder said he likes to think of it as at least a cultural coproduction.
“We speak more Farsi than Hebrew in ‘Tehran’… so to a certain extent, I would like to think that it is an Israeli-Iranian series, although officially it is not,” he said.
Zonder told AFP he believes the Iranian and Israeli people “could be friends, without the leaders who frighten their population and stir up hatred in order to stay in power”.
Lead actress Niv Sultan studied Farsi for four months, he said, to prepare for the role of an Iranian-born Jewish woman who is sent back on an undercover mission to the country of her childhood.
Two Iranian-born actors are also in the show — Navid Negahban and Shaun Toub, both of whom have had roles in the US series “Homeland”, which is also based on an Israeli-made espionage series.
On a separate note, Zonder said that “placing a woman at the heart of this new action series was a political decision”.
“We wanted to see what a young, talented but inexperienced woman chooses and can do in a world ruled by men when her commanders have failed,” he said. “It is definitely a feminist series.”
– Praise and controversy –
Its producers hope “Tehran” will have similar global success as previous series featuring Israel’s notorious secret agents.
“Fauda”, about an undercover Israeli unit fighting Arab militants, marked a breakthrough for attracting international audiences to Israeli productions and runs to three seasons on Netflix.
Praised by some for its nuanced portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has also been criticised for being one-sided and glorifying Israel and its agents.
“Tehran”, an eight-part series, was produced by Israel’s public television network Kan and mostly shot in Athens.
Yossi Sivan, a member of an association of Iranian Jews living in Israel, told AFP that the spy thriller series nonetheless “gives the impression” of taking place in Tehran.
Sivan, who is in his 70s, moved to Israel when he was 20, but said images of the Tehran suburbs where he spent his childhood remain engraved in his mind.
An estimated tens of thousands of Iranian Jews have moved to Israel since its establishment in 1948, although official figures are not available.
Sivan, growing audibly emotional, said he had only returned to Tehran once since leaving, “when it was still possible”.
Before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power, Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had diplomatic relations with Israel.
Since then, Iranian leaders have repeatedly pledged to see the destruction of the Jewish state.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that Iran and its purported nuclear weapons programme pose an existential threat to Israel.
In Iran, the Kayhan newspaper, which is close to ultra-conservatives, in October slammed the new Israeli show.
It charged that “this series tries to portray the Zionist regime’s espionage system as so powerful that Israeli spies are roaming around Iran freely”.
“While Iran’s cinema has given up producing anti-Israeli films and series,” it argued, “the Zionist regime has set up a production line for anti-Iran material”.