He doesn’t starring Claire Danes, this isn’t about al-Qaeda, and he won’t win an Emmy. But Gando, the hit Homeland-like TV series that has taken Iran by storm, has an impact far beyond the small screen, becoming a real political force that could disrupt important nuclear talks between Tehran and the West.
This is exactly what its manufacturers want. More than a showcase of spectacular car chases and convoluted storylines, the spy thriller is a sophisticated ploy by Iranian hardliners seeking to torpedo the nuclear talks by turning mass entertainment into a weapon in their battle against the country’s moderates.
The series, which stars several big names in Iranian show business, catapulted to success when it debuted in 2019, receiving the highest ratings on Iranian state television. The second season was aired last March in an attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear talks, which were just starting to gain traction.
The show has become a buzz of public discourse here, a talk of the town among ultra-conservatives who praise it as a patriotic exposure, and reformists who condemn it as slanderous propaganda. And since the nuclear talks may take on a new look after months of stagnation, Gando, by accident or not, has just returned to air in reruns.
The series revolves around real dialogue between Tehran and world powers, including the US and the UK, to revive their dying 2015 nuclear deal. But, acting as a Trojan horse for a campaign of political disinformation, Gando weaves its own web of fictitious intrigues and dark operations.
The cast includes American and British agents who have repeatedly been thwarted by infiltration attempts; a hardened Iranian intelligence officer named Mohammad, blown up by terrorists in the final season finale; and a slightly veiled version of Jason Rezayan, a Washington Post reporter who spent 18 months in an Iranian prison before being released in 2016.
Even more blunt, the show portrays the Iranian nuclear negotiators at best as puppets of the West, or at worst as traitors seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic. In a particularly controversial episode, Mohammed uncovers a secret connection between some negotiators and British intelligence as he investigates the West’s plan to sow discord between Sunnis and Shiites.
“Chief, there is a spy on the negotiation team we need to deal with,” warns his boss Mohammad, played by renowned actor Wahid Rahbani.
Critics insist that there is no evidence that any members of the actual negotiating team are spies. They criticize Gando as a smear campaign against the reformist government of former President Hassan Rouhani and an attempt to discredit his attempts to rapprochement with the West.
That hasn’t stopped a group of 160 tough lawmakers who, when Rouhani tried to reopen the atomic deal earlier this year, signed a letter endorsing the show and calling it an accurate description of the events.
“If what we saw in the thriller Gando is true, then why isn’t the judiciary suing the Rouhani government’s negotiating team?” This was recently demanded by Javad Nikbin, an ultra-conservative member of parliament.
Gando’s success in the confusion of fact and fiction in the minds of many viewers was so great that during the first season, the then Iranian foreign minister angrily – and repeatedly – criticized it as a “bundle of lies.” Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif even wrote to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei complaining about the show’s disastrous impact.
The program cost about $ 5 million, a large budget by local standards, and included on-site filming in Turkey and China. It was prepared by hardliners on Iranian state television, including those associated with the vaunted military unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
“Gando” – whose name refers to a small local crocodile that deftly pursues its prey – continually reiterates the argument that engaging with the West is tantamount to surrender, like any retreat from Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities. The blame for the dire economic state that has been undermined by US-led sanctions rests firmly on hostile foreign forces and their domestic henchmen.
“People fully understand that the economic difficulties have arisen from the betrayal of a handful of pro-Western diplomats and politicians who are selling the idea of negotiating with the West as the only solution to the country’s problems,” Mohammed said in one episode.
Despite the efforts of Gando supporters and Tehran’s often aggressive rhetoric, the nuclear talks are still ongoing, albeit weakly – unlike Mohammed, who dies in a ball of fire at the end of Season 2. And Iran’s foreign ministry, portrayed in the TV series as This is the nest of the divorced elite, has not been completely cleared of its more moderate figures, even after the election of tough President Ebrahim Raisi in June, replacing Rouhani.
Earlier this month, Tehran’s chief negotiator announced that he would meet with representatives of other signatories to the nuclear deal, including the United States, in Vienna on November 29. This raised hope in some quarters that the agreement could still be preserved. Khamenei’s approval.
“The hardliners have spared no effort to influence the negotiations over the past few years, but the supreme leader still has the final say,” reformist politician and former deputy interior minister Mostafa Tajzadeh said in an interview. “Despite all the hardliners’ attempts, I do believe that the Biden administration still has control over the initiative to break the deadlock.”
And not all Iranians fell under Gando’s fabrications.
Reza Parasteh, a 40-year-old IT engineer based in Tehran, said the first episodes of the show’s first season are good in terms of plot and production value. But then the show turned into a harsh agitprop that shattered credulity.
“Season 2 was a revised pet and bull story and highly politicized to oppose a likely deal by the outgoing government,” Parastech said.
However, “Gando” was firmly entrenched in the public mind, continuing to appear in public controversy even after the second season ended. The hashtag “Gando” appears regularly on Twitter in Farsi following events of seemingly obscure origins, such as a cyberattack in late October that shut down gas stations across the country, causing long queues and angry motorists. There were no claims to responsibility for what happened.
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“Let’s turn to Mohammed and his team at Gando to thwart the conspiracy behind the gas station burglary,” one pseudonym activist sarcastically tweeted.
The show’s overtly political stance, especially in the last season, has sparked a backlash from detractors not only against the show, but also against some of its stars. One actor complained that independent producers turned him down on projects due to her appearance in Gando.
Another actor, Dariush Farhang, a pioneer of Iranian cinema and theater, has been accused of trading his reputation for money he earned from acting as an intelligence chief on the show. When pictures of Farhang shopping in Toronto were posted online, some of his compatriots sarcastically replied, “You portrayed the West as dirty, but you still shop there.”
Gando’s producers have pledged more seasons for their hit series.
His fans are undoubtedly excited. His critics still resent what they see as sinister manipulation by a faction of Iranian society to win the public over to their side.
“This is to impose the will of the minority on the majority of the people … using drama and fiction,” said veteran journalist Mehrdad Khadir. “This is absolutely not a work of fiction. Rather, it is an attempt to influence the future of those who like it. “
Khazani is a special correspondent based in Tehran. Staff writer Chu lives in London.