Can New Spy Thriller 'Tehran' Affect Israeli-Iranian Relations? Its Writer Hopes So

'We present a different, pleasant side of Iran, which no Western series has ever shown,' says Moshe Zonder, the creator of 'Tehran'

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Actress Niv Sultan as secret Israeli agent Tamar Rabinyan, in "Tehran."
Actress Niv Sultan as secret Israeli agent Tamar Rabinyan, in "Tehran." Credit: Kan Public Broadcaster Channel 11
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

Moshe Zonder always liked peeking outside and over the fence – and that’s not just a metaphor. While working as a young reporter on the local weekly Tel Aviv, he made it a habit to visit Gaza at every opportunity. It was the early 1990s, the Strip was not yet closed off to Israeli journalists and Zonder – who is today one of Israel’s most successful screenwriters – was able to forge connections with local sources.

Some folks on the set started taking photos and asking people their names. It was as if they were members of the Iranian secret service. There was panic

Moshe Zonder

One visit was to interview the commander of the cell that, during the first Lebanon war in 1982, kidnapped eight soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces Nahal Brigade – some of whom Zonder had known from his childhood in Holon. Another time he was asked to interview Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin.

“I was half an hour early getting to Hamas headquarters and I had some time to kill,” Zonder recalls, in a conversation with Haaretz. “Sheikh Yassin’s bureau chief sat with me, made me coffee and showed me pictures of himself with his family and friends. He was a gentleman. ‘You Jews had it best under Muslim rule,’ he told me, referring to the golden age of Spanish Jewry. There’s something to that, but I told him that those good times ended with persecution and expulsion. I thought of my mother, a Holocaust survivor, and added that we, the Jews, would never again allow a foreign army to defend us. A healthy dialogue developed between us; we were really talking.”

The bureau chief turned out to be Ismail Haniyeh, who currently heads Hamas’ political wing.

'The ayatollahs’ regime is an oppressive, threatening and frightening one. We wanted to make that clear in the series'

Moshe Zonder, the writer and co-creator of the new spy thriller "Tehran." Breaks down the truth into pieces so one can see it through the broadest possible prism.Credit: Meged Gozani

Nearly 30 years later, you can still see that that encounter left an impression on Zonder: “I follow what Haniyeh’s been doing, and he’s a partner. Maybe not a partner for a photo-op with the American president on the White House lawn before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, but you could reach a hudna (truce), or understandings with him. I’ve since met other members of Hamas. Several of them were assassinated. Sheikh Yassin, a spiritual leader who was paralyzed in a wheelchair – we killed from the air. What kind of future can come of such a decision?”

The meetings with Palestinian leaders and senior Hamas officials turned in 2015 into the first season of the popular Israeli television series “Fauda,” which Zonder wrote with Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. 'I follow what Haniyeh’s been doing, and he’s a partner,' says Zonder.Credit: Reuters

“It took me five minutes to realize that we were on the same page,” Zonder says. “I told them that the character of Abu Ahmad, aka ‘The Panther’ – the head of the military wing of an organization that has Jewish blood on its hands – can’t just be a target for assassination. He also had to be portrayed as a family man with a wife he’s crazy about, a mother he’s devoted to and a motive we can understand, even if we’re Israeli Jews. It seemed like science fiction that we’d be allowed to portray such a character and at first no one wanted ‘Fauda,’ but in the end Yes [satellite TV company] went for it.”

From the window of Zonder’s home in central Tel Aviv, you can see the park abutting the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The television in his living room is surrounded by thousands of books – political and military biographies (“The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu” stands out immediately), thick novels and books of poetry. Zonder himself has authored some books, the best known being “Sayeret Matkal, The Elite Unit of Israel” from 2000 (in Hebrew), about the elite reconnaissance unit that always fascinated him.

He was born in 1965 in Holon. His father, an accountant, passed away 30 years ago; his mother, a housewife, lives to this day in the home where Moshe grew up. We are meeting the day after the debut last week of “Tehran,” the new TV spy series he created for Israel’s Kan Public Broadcasting Corporation, along with Maor Cohen, Dana Eden and Omri Shenhar. Every few minutes he chokes up and his eyes get teary. Maybe, he says, that’s because of all the good reviews the series received from almost every critic. Or maybe, I suggested, it’s just a release of tension after so many years of intensive work.

He, Eden and Shenhar spent the past five or so years rummaging through the Iranian universe. Together with director Daniel Syrkin, they interviewed academics who have researched Iran, intelligence and cybersecurity experts from the Mossad and dozens of Iranian exiles to try to sketch the most accurate picture possible of the city beyond the proverbial hills of darkness.

Their in-depth research yielded an espionage thriller that centers around Tamar Rabinyan (portrayed by Niv Sultan), an agent who is sent on a cyber mission: to neutralize Iranian air defenses so that Israel can attack one of the country’s nuclear facilities. As required by the rules of the genre, the mission gets disrupted and Tamar is forced to find her way in a hostile country while confronting her own identity as someone who left Iran at the age of 6.

According to Zonder, one of the primary objectives of “Tehran” was to counter the negative image of Iran as a country whose sole goal is to destroy Israel. He has the ability to break down the truth into pieces so that one can view it through the broadest possible prism.

Actress Niv Sultan as Tamar Rabinyan, in "Tehran." Credit: Screenshot / Kan Public Broadcaster Channel 11

'Our series presents a different, pleasant side of Iran. Iran is a beautiful country and Tehran’s young people have a whole avant-garde scene'

“When in Iran they call the United States ‘the Great Satan’ and call us the ‘Little Satan’ – I don’t identify with it but I can understand where it comes from,” he says. “In 1951, Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected prime minister and he decided to stop Western exploitation of Iranian oil and nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. He initiated reforms and tried to help his citizens. Two years later the CIA helped get him deposed and replaced him with the young shah [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi], who was a tyrant and, among other things, a good friend of Israel’s. Our people trained the men of the SAVAK, the secret police that operated brutally on [the shah’s] behalf.”

Where does this willingness to look the threatening “other” straight in the eye come from?

“I was always interested in the other side. Maybe it comes from the way my parents taught me not to prejudge anyone.”

Underground avant garde

Even before “Tehran” aired, Apple TV purchased the whole series for what industry sources say was $1.5 million per episode, and undertook a commitment to produce two more seasons – an impressive achievement indeed. The deal was facilitated by Alon Aranya, an Israeli producer who’s lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, and Julian Leroux, a Canadian producer and senior vice president at the Cineflix media production company.

Daniel Syrkin, director of the new series "Tehran," on the set in Athens. ”Picking a woman heroine "was definitely a political choice,” says Zonder.Credit: Kan Public Broadcaster Channel 11

I ask Zonder if, after his international success with “Fauda,” which is being distributed by Netflix, and the sale of “Tehran,” he could be described as a wealthy man.

“As far as Apple is concerned,” he replies, “the amount [paid] is a trade secret. I’m glad I can’t talk about it because I hate talking about money. Money is important, certainly for me as an Israeli screenwriter and a family man, but that’s not where my passion lies. I’m not interested in being a rich man. For me, happiness and wealth will continue to come only if I can continue to make a living writing what I want.”

In “Tehran” you portray Iranian protagonists whom are easy to sympathize with, even if they are identified with the regime. On the other hand, early in the first episode we see a man being hung in the main square – something that in reality happens very rarely there. Why did you pull out the intimidation card so quickly?

“It’s true that most executions in Iran take place in prisons, far from the public eye, but there are still public hangings. The Tamar character asks her taxi driver what the man who was hanged had done, and he says he had embezzled oil money. That is indeed considered a serious crime in Iran that justifies a public hanging – so everyone should see and be warned. Omri Shenhar and I deliberated a lot as to whether to leave the hanging scene in. In the end, we wanted to illustrate Tamar’s fear, as well as say something about Iran.

'I don’t need the ayatollahs’ regime in order to understand that Israel is a violent country, afflicted with increasing hatred that is eating away at its social fabric'

“Our series [also] presents a different, pleasant side of Iran, which as far as I know, no Western series has ever shown,” he explains. “Iran is a beautiful country and Tehran’s young people have a whole avant-garde scene, underground and thriving, with lots of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. There’s also a well-developed LGBT scene in Tehran and you can see pride flags at the protest demonstrations. But Iran is no paradise and the ayatollahs’ regime is an oppressive, threatening and frightening one. We wanted to make that clear in the series as early as possible.”

One would imagine that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be pleased with the paranoia toward Iran in the series.

“When Bibi illustrates the nuclear bomb at the United States with a picture taken from ‘Tom and Jerry’ comics, he’s diverting attention from the need to speak with the Palestinians,” says Zonder, using the premier’s nickname. “The first time I spoke to an Iranian exile, I talked to her about then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was threatening to annihilate Israel. ‘Do you really think Israel even interests him?’ she said. ‘He waves that around because he can’t deal with the domestic problems.’ Bibi is doing the same thing, while at the same time inciting and dividing. He is very good at that.”

A scene from Israeli hit TV series "Fauda." After it first aired in 2015, says Zonder, “studying Arabic became much more popular in Israel.” Credit: Ronen Akerman/Courtesy of Yes

There are those who claim that Israel always wanted peace, but that there’s “no partner” on the other side.

“They taught us as children that Israel wants peace, but it’s not true. We don’t really want peace. The great [David] Ben-Gurion could have tried to make a peace agreement with [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, but he preferred to go along with two sinking colonial empires, Britain and France, on a failed adventure that we know as Operation Kadesh [aka the 1956 Sinai campaign].”

Gush Emunim, the settlers’ movement, he continues, “started to blossom under Mapai [precursor of the Labor Party]. I think [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak got it with his remark about the ‘villa in the jungle,’ even if he meant something totally different. He was essentially saying that we came to the Middle East, but we don’t really want to live here. Where do we want to live? Maybe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with its combination of shtetl and hipsters.”

'Three teenagers wearing yarmulkes said to me: We really enjoyed the series and we will no longer yell ‘death to Arabs’ at demonstrations'

Your series is marketed under the catchphrase “Tehran is here.” It’s not a flattering comparison, especially given that in recent years there is a growing similarity between Israel and Iran, with rising conservatism, an erosion of human rights and a reality of incitement and divisiveness.

“’Tehran is here’ is a slogan chosen by the Kan broadcaster – but I don’t need the ayatollahs’ regime in order to understand that Israel is a violent country, afflicted with increasing hatred that is eating away at its social fabric. Each year we go to the alternative Memorial Day ceremony, and each year more people attend. When you go there and see that much of the audience is made up of bereaved families on both sides, you also see the demonstrators on the outside, behind police barriers. There is always someone cursing us through a megaphone.

“The depth of pathological hatred worries me when it comes to Israel’s ability to survive as a society. History doesn’t bode well in terms of how many years Israel can survive as an independent country, with an army, a currency and a flag, and not be in thrall to some ruling empire. These fissures and socioeconomic gaps are much more dangerous than an Iranian bomb.’

‘As if Bob Dylan arrived’

It was in 2015 that Zonder became the uber-screenwriter in terms of describing Israeli reality. That happened with his series “Fauda.” The same year he also wrote the script for “Sabena Hijacking: My Version,” a docudrama about the May, 1972 hijacking of a Belgian passenger jet with Israeli passengers on board, by members of Black September terror organization. In “Sabena” too, Zonder placed the Jews – including Prime Minister Netanyahu who took part in the operation to free the hostages – and the terrorists on an equal footing. He does something similar in “Tehran,” but this time there is a woman heroine, fighting for her place in a patriarchal world.

Moshe Zonder, a creator of the new Kan Public Broadcaster's spy thriller, "Tehran." Breaks down the truth into pieces so one can see it through the broadest possible prism.Credit: Meged Gozani

“It was definitely a political choice,” he says, regarding creation of the character of Tamar. “She came to Israel from Iran and is returning to what is for her the most dangerous place in the world. But it’s also the place where she spent her childhood years, which she’s never stopped longing for. Tamar is the best hacker in the West when it comes to cracking Iranian cyber barriers, but she’s also an inexperienced agent who was thrown into the lion’s den due to time constraints.

"She is a young woman who still has much of the adolescent about her. Tamar is far from being someone who can shoulder the responsibility for the outcome of bombing an Iranian nuclear reactor. She was supposed to go to Tehran for 24 hours, do her hacking, and leave. The Mossad chief and the commander of the Israel Air Force were supposed to take it from there, but the men screwed up, and now she has to contend with the results in a masculine, Muslim Shi’ite world, fixing what the men broke.”

According to Zonder, one of the primary objectives of “Tehran” was to counter the negative image of Iran as a country whose sole goal is to destroy Israel

During the shooting in Athens of the scene of a protest where regime opponents face-off against members of the ayatollahs’ youth movement, there was a scary moment where reality seeped into the production.

Zonder: “There were exiled Iranian actors on the set, people we had brought from the United States and Europe, as well as lots of Iranian extras who were migrants currently in Athens. Suddenly, some folks on the set started taking photos of other people, asking them their names and what they were doing there. It was as if they were really members of the Iranian secret service, and there was panic.

"We began shooting the scene and the demonstration turned violent. Police officers, dressed in authentic uniforms, started beating people with clubs, which was all part of the scene – and then one of the actresses had an anxiety attack. We had to stop. There was this mixture of fears that Iranian agents were really there and the feeling that this was real: that the protesters were about to be arrested and thrown in jail.”

How much have the TV series you’ve created impact reality?

“I remember going to a panel discussion on ‘Fauda’ at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, together with Hisham Suliman who plays Abu Ahmad in the series. We went on stage and Hisham was introduced – and everyone stood up and applauded, as if Bob Dylan had arrived. At the end of the panel, three teenagers wearing yarmulkes turned to me, embarrassed. They were 16, not yet shaving, and they said quietly to me: We really enjoyed the series and we will no longer yell ‘death to Arabs’ at demonstrations. At that moment I realized we’d achieved something.

“After ‘Fauda’ first aired, something wonderful happened – studying Arabic became much more popular in Israel. Arabic is a language that makes many people tremble with fright, afraid of being attacked, when they hear it in the background. We [Israelis] use it mainly for cursing. But here, Arabic suddenly sounded and felt good. I don’t delude myself, but perhaps ‘Tehran’ will do something to help with the total disconnect between Israelis and Iranians.”

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