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Tehran

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Why it’s worth your time:

With the recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, this taut political thriller has become especially timely, referenced by journalists trying to explain how Israeli intelligence agents might have slipped through the tightly-protected borders to pull off such an attack.

Released in late September by Apple TV+, the series follows undercover Mossad agent and hacker Tamar Rabinyan, an Israeli born in Iran who infiltrates her former homeland, posing alternately as an Iranian flight attendant, an electric company worker, and a student dissident. Her mission: to disable Iran’s aerial defense system and clear the way for an Israeli attack on a nuclear reactor.

What distinguishes the series from other espionage thrillers is the extent to which it empathizes with “the enemy,” dispelling myths as it reveals the fraught emotional lives of its characters: an Iranian intelligence officer, a devout young Muslim, Israeli assets, young counter revolutionaries.

It also explores the underground world of Iranian dissidents, showing a side of the country that is rarely seen: drug-fueled parties, sexually liberated 20-somethings, bold acts of open protest.

Historical Context

When Tamar realizes that her Iranian contact may be putting her in jeopardy, she seeks out an estranged aunt in the capital. Her mother’s sister is now living as a converted Muslim under a different name, married to high-ranking Iranian Justice Department official. Despite the risks, Tamar’s aunt agrees to protect her, explaining to her own family that Tamar is a former student facing marital struggles.

Though she speaks Farsi with a potentially cover-blowing accent,Tamar quickly discovers her Iranian roots have remained strong. The overlap of Israeli and Iranian lives, and their shared history, is part of what riveted Israelis when the show debuted on the country’s Public Broadcasting network over the summer.

While Israel and Iran remain arch enemies today, the countries were on relatively good terms for 30 years, before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In fact, Jews have lived in Iran throughout history: an estimated 140,000 Israelis trace their roots to Iran, including a former president, a top-ranking defense official, and several pop musicians. In recent months, an Israeli singer with Persian roots, Liraz Charhi, was celebrated when she released a new album she created secretly with Iranian musicians.

Roughly 10,000 Jews continue to live in Iran as an officially protected minority. But many live in fear of being accused of spying, and go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from Zionists.  Earlier in 2020, when a U.S. strike killed the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s covert unit, representatives of Iran’s Jewish community paid condolences to his family and took part in his funeral, declaring that “God will avenge his blood.”

Yet an Iranian-born Israeli broadcaster declared that the Jewish community in Iran were “sitting on a powder keg.”

With the latest assassination — and global anxiety around an escalating geopolitical conflict — Tehran drops you directly into the powder keg while revealing the humanity of the residents at the center of the storm…in a way that only a fictionalized narrative can do.

The takeaway:

A timely, nail-biting spy thriller that you won’t be able to stop watching, Tehran is as illuminating as it is gripping.  “There is not one clear enemy. It’s not about one side against the other,” says Niv Sultan, the Israeli actor who plays Tamar. “For the first time, we’re showing a different point of view of this conflict.”

Watch it with:

This one is binge-worthy. You might not want any co-viewers who will slow you down.

Worth noting:

There’s some violence and sex, and much of it requires subtitles.  The dialogues in Hebrew, English and Farsi.

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