Sometimes a television show is just distracting entertainment, and sometimes it also has the possibility of opening your eyes up to things you never thought of. The Israeli espionage thriller Tehran — with its super-spy Tamar, a beautiful hacker who could best Homeland’s Carrie Mathison in a contest at using charisma to recruit fellow agents — is one of those latter shows. Because as much as Tamar eats up the screen with her presence, the real star character of this show is the people of Tehran.
Yes, there are the violent, fanatical Islamic extremist characters you would expect in a show depicting a regime that got its start with revolutionary students taking 52 Americans hostage for over a year. But another side of today’s Iran gets at least as much screen time — a portrait of an Iranian young people yearning to be free like other young people around the world. Young people who want to dance, to love who they want to love, and to not be forced to wear a black, religious head-covering if they don’t want to.
Watching this show, I thought of one of the great tragedies of our time — that deadly wars and brinkmanship are being carried out for no rational reason by former powers that dream of a glorious past (and maybe also some kind of apocalyptic, messianic future). Even worse than Iran with its pointless, murderous foreign adventures in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, is Russia. I can’t even begin to imagine what practical gain there is to the average Russian person from interfering in US elections or annexing Crimea. Once upon a time, it was possible to imagine that empires intervened overseas with the goal of increasing the wealth of their economies — to give their economies access to natural resources and trade routes that could not be gained any other way than through the use of force.
But none of that is on the table with either Russia or Iran’s foreign expeditions. It has to instead be that something other than practical, economic gain is at stake. The most convincing argument I have heard is that these nations are trying to acquire an emotional good, a feeling. A feeling of the recovery of pride and glory in the face of humiliation (perhaps a bit like American southerners putting up statues of Robert E. Lee to help them feel that their “Lost Cause” was more glorious and just than that of their victorious battlefield opponents in the Civil War).
And the people of Iran have a lot of past glory to reflect on. Many of the greatest empires of the ancient, and even Medieval, worlds were centered in Iran. The Achaemenid Empire, for example, stretched from the Balkans to the Indus Valley, including nearly all of the Middle East. The Empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great, is even credited by the Bible with being anointed by God to allow the Jews to return to Israel from their Babylonian exile and to rebuild their temple.
Of course today no power in Iran is encouraging the Jews to live in the land of Israel. In one episode of the TV show, while riding in a cab to the airport to flee home to Israel with a doctored passport, the lead character hears a fiery, radio speech calling for the destruction of Tel Aviv. The experience reminds her of the importance of her (aborted at that point) espionage mission in Iran and so she tells the cab driver to turn around.
That Israel and Iran are at war with each other is not fiction, it’s a sad reality that provides the setting for the show. As I watched it, part of me felt pride that the real-life Israel really does produce brave, skilled, committed people like the show’s Tamar who are fighting for our safety and survival. But I also felt a deep sadness — because the Mullahs of Iran, like Putin in Russian and autocrats elsewhere in today’s world, are well established, and are deeply committed to spending the meager resources, and lives, of their citizens on crazed projects to restore some kind of sick idea of what honor is. Tehran, as a show, pulls us back and forth between these feelings of pride and sadness. But it also shows us reason for hope. Because there really are young people in Tehran who prefer dancing over war, and love over hate.
For now, the show is only available in Hebrew (from Israel’s public broadcaster Kan’s channel 11), but soon it will be coming to Apple TV+, I’m sure with English subtitles and maybe also dubbing. I recommend it for the drama. But also for the feeling of hope it engenders in me.