For the past four weeks, Iranians have been glued to their state-controlled televisions watching a team of highly competent and devoted intelligence officers catch spies and toss corrupt officials in prison.
The secret agents and foreign spies are among the main characters in a popular counterintelligence series that appears to be trying to upgrade the sketchy image of the feared intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The IRGC officers have — off screen — been behind a series of controversial arrests, including those of dual nationals, academics, and environmentalists on often vague and unproven espionage charges that have followed warnings by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about alleged “infiltration” efforts by the enemies of Iran.
The series, which claims to be based on true stories, features an Iranian-American spy whose character, the series producers say, is based on Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was jailed in Iran in 2015 after being convicted of espionage in a closed-door trial.
Rezaian, who was released in a January 2016 prisoner swap after serving 544 days, is suing Iran and accused it of “torture,” “hostage taking,” and of using him as a pawn in nuclear negotiations with Western countries.
In a memoir published earlier this year, Rezaian has detailed his time in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, including bizarre and exhausting interrogation sessions where his interrogators wanted him to confess to being a spy. He declined to comment on the Iranian TV series when contacted by RFE/RL.
Javad Afshar is the director of the series titled Gando — named after Iran’s short-muzzle crocodiles known for their patience and tenacity. He said Gando is based on information from “security bodies that are responsible for the country’s security.”
Afshar said the series was ordered by the Martyr Avini center, which says on its website that it is affiliated with the Basij center of state-controlled television.
Saeid Golkar, assistant professor at the Political Science Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says the series is “ultimately a product on behalf of and in consultation with the IRGC’s intelligence and security organization” to shape the narrative, blame foreigners for the country’s problems, and also undermine the government of President Hassan Rohani.
In the series’ first episode a suspected spy, the son of a government official, is arrested with a suitcase full of dollars and gold coins after security agents force the commercial flight he’s on to land at an Iranian airport with the help of fighter jets.
“There are so many involved, if I tell you their names you’ll be shocked,” a secret agent tells his colleague following the successful arrest.
“They were supposed to be role models for the children of this country,” he adds. “What happened, they haven’t been able to be models for their own kids.”
Pressure On Iran
One of the characters in the series, a female spy who reportedly poses as a conservationist, has been interpreted as an attempt to justify the widely criticized arrest of eight environmentalists who have been held for more than a year on charges of spying for foreign intelligence agencies.
The IRGC’s intelligence organization also detained the managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Iranian-Canadian sociology Professor Kavous Seyed Emami, who died in prison under suspicious circumstances.
The series, which producers say is drawing large audiences, is being aired at a time of intense pressure on Iran, which faces crippling U.S. sanctions and a threat of “obliteration” by U.S. President Donald Trump, who last month called off a strike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. drone due to the high number of casualties such an attack would cause.
The message from the series for those outside of Iran, says Afshar, is that “[Iranian intelligence agents] are highly alert and watching everything.”
Controlled by hard-liners, Iranian state TV has a record of airing content believed to be produced by intelligence bodies in an effort to promote state policies.
“Unlike the numerous films made in 2009 in this vein after the suppression of the [grassroots opposition] Green Movement that flopped at the box office, Gando is better produced,” says Narges Bajoghli, an assistant professor of Middle East studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“Given how the Trump administration officials — like [U.S. national-security adviser] John Bolton and [Trump personal attorney] Rudy Giuliani — have spoken at [Iranian opposition group Mujahedin Khalq] rallies and given Trump’s aggressive policies towards Iran, including [Washington’s] close relations with Saudi Arabia, the [United Arab Emirates], and Israel, the producers of Gando are able to capitalize on this moment when in Iran it feels like the whole world is against it,” she said.
“In this climate, it is not hard to understand how an entertaining show that casts a wide net of foreign influence and espionage to weaken the country can be popular,” Bajoghli added.
Golkar says that while the TV series appears to be widely watched, “the question is to what extent it is successful.”
On social media, hard-liners and regime loyalists have praised the series while others have dismissed it as state propaganda.
Writing on Twitter, journalist Masoumeh Naseri said that while Gando tries to portray Iranian secret services as “law-abiding, smart, and James Bond-[like],” each scene of the series is full of “deceit.”
“The memoirs and writing of security prisoners contradicts Gando’s narratives,” Naseri said.