Season five of the popular TV series Paytakht (Capital) has catapulted Iran’s military role in the Syrian civil war into the limelight once again, turning it into a hot topic debated in the media, across social networks, and in people's own living rooms. The series, which was originally supposed to be a family situation comedy, has now morphed into a platform for promoting the ideology of the Islamic Republic and its foreign policy.
In the 17th episode of the series, a Syrian family and the family of Naghi Mamouli, the lead character, take refuge in a ruined building as ISIS forces close in. Children shake in silence, worried about their father, who hides at a distance from them. As the footsteps of masked men approaching can be heard, the fear turns into utter terror — the terror that for years now the Islamic Republic has used against its people, an effective way of highlighting how devastating it would be if Iran became another Syria, and of convincing Iranians that Iran’s military action in the country is the best way of preventing such a scenario.
At the beginning of this particular episode of Capital, prior to the arrival of the ISIS forces, an old Syrian man recites an Arabic poem praising the glory of the motherland: “Even the fires [of motherland] are paradise,” he says. The man then turns toward Mohsen Tanabandeh, the actor who plays the lead role, and thanks him for saving and giving shelter to his family. “God save Iran,” he tells him. “It is the safest country.” Tanabandeh's character also invites the old man to visit Iran. “Among all these countries ours is the only safe one,” he tells him.
In the final minutes of episode 17, the women and the children are huddled in a sort of line. An ISIS fighter on a suicide mission talks on the phone with another ISIS fighter. Using his booted foot, he raises the face of Homa, one of the young girls, and tells the ISIS fighter on the phone: “Here is heaven. Come as fast as you can. We have two women and two nymphs.” When Homa’s mother objects, she receives a kick to the face.
A New Spin on an Old Agenda
However dramatic and compelling, these themes are nothing new. Over the last five years, “security” and “ISIS” have been catchwords for government propaganda defending Iranian military presence and intervention in Syria. They support Ayatollah Khamenei’s assertion that if ISIS is not stopped in Syria “we will have to fight them in the provinces of Iran.”
Capital is financed by the Owj Arts and Media Organization, which is unofficially affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. Following the broadcast of episode 17, comments posted on social networks fell into two major camps — those who supported the efforts of the Islamic Republic in Syria, and those who objected to it.
Some objected to the new direction the series is taking and its promotion of the role the Revolutionary Guards Corps plays in financing it and setting its agenda.
“The same night that a comedy show [portrayed] the Defenders of the Shrine fighting against ISIS, in the real world, supporters of [Syrian President] Assad were dropping chemical bombs on Syrian women and children in Douma,” tweeted Ammar Maleki, an Iranian-Dutch assistant professor at Tilburg University in Holland [Persian link]. Maleki was referring to the suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Eastern Ghouta on April 7, in which at least 70 people died. “The propaganda in season five of Capital…will soon be forgotten, but pictures of mass murders committed by Assad, [the Islamic Republic] and Russia will be recorded by history,” he wrote.
Defenders of the Shrine on TV
Others criticized Mohsen Tanabandeh for demeaning himself by turning from a popular actor into a promoter of the Islamic Republic’s ideology and policies.
“How could Mohsen Tanabandeh agree to act in season five after reading the script?” one person on Twitter wanted to know. “Making ISIS into something big brings Iranians nothing except fear, terror, worry and frustration.” Another person posted a photograph of the paramilitary Basijis attacking protesters in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election and wrote :“You want us to be afraid of ISIS? We have our own [vigilantes] that can teach ISIS a thing or two.”
Other people went on to Twitter to point out the unfavorable economic situation in Iran today. “Don’t use Capital [series] five to justify your own lies and the waste of millions of dollars of Iranian money in Syria,” one person tweeted. “If you have any honor left let an independent journalist ask you questions about it in public.”
But others defended Capital, praising the “Defenders of the Shrine” — the term used by the Islamic Republic for its fighters in Syria — and celebrated the show’s handling of the theme.
One hardliner theorist, Ali Akbar Raefipour, posted a picture of Mohsen Hojaji, an Iranian military advisor who was beheaded by ISIS in August 2017. “I was shaking and my throat went dry in that scene when ISIS confronted Naghi and the rest in Capital five — even though it is a humorous series on TV. I don’t know what is in your heart if you did not feel fear. This is what manliness is.”
Some people on Twitter even expressed a desire for the Revolutionary Guards to take over Iranian TV. “It was because of men like the Defenders of the Shrine that [our girls] did not become ISIS nymphs,” one tweet read. And some described the new series as a way of “paying respect” to all the families of the Defenders of the Shrine. The wife of Mohammad Balbasi, a member of the Revolutionary Guards who was killed in Syria in 2016, tweeted: “Now my children have their answers. Bless you!”
But there were other mothers who objected to the fact that there was no age rating for a supposed family situation comedy that portrayed such horrible scenes. “At night we gathered together to see something entertaining but instead we got this,” tweeted one mother. “Tonight Capital five was aired without any advice about the recommended age of its audience,” she commented, taking particular issue with the scene where young girls were referred to as “nymphs.” Children were too young for such content, she said. “Is this a comedy for the family?”
Journalist Elaheh Khosravi also noted objections to the idea of children viewing the show. “I noticed many tweets about the fear and the stress of the children who watched Capital, especially tonight,” she tweeted, adding: “Perhaps I would not have believed it if my own distressed child was not now sleeping with me.”
The series has clearly become a political statement, adding to the huge amount of commentary, debate and arguments about Iran’s policy in Syria. Owj and its main backer the Revolutionary Guards know exactly what they are doing, and the particular kind of drama it fosters in people’s homes, on social networks, and in the wider society. Using a popular TV series to promote their own agenda might be a very expensive undertaking, but it appears to have had an impact, and a certain level of success.
More on the activities of Owj Arts and Media Organization:
The Ayatollah’s Favorite Pop Star, July 2017
Iranian TV Show Hosts Convicted Terrorist With a Smile, February 2017
The Holocaust Cartoons and Zarif’s Lies, April 2016