Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif has lot on his plate these days: A deal just inked with China, scrambles for possible talks with the new administration in the United States, which could revive his signature legacy (the 2015 nuclear deal), and calls for him to run in the presidential elections in June.
Yet, on March 31, when he joined a chat on the invitation-only app Clubhouse, Zarif spoke about one issue more than any other: the second season of Gando, a TV series currently being aired every night on Channel 3 of Iran’s state broadcaster.
The show is named after a species of short-muzzled crocodiles native to southeastern Iran. Gandos, also known as mugger crocodiles, are known for hiding in the wetlands of Iranian Baluchistan and stealthily attacking their victims without warning. The show uses the Baluchi moniker as a metaphor for spies that are allegedly hiding in the bowels of Zarif’s foreign ministry.
The spy show’s first season aired in 2019 and incensed Zarif and others in President Hassan Rouhani’s administration. Gando is funded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a military force that has more political and economic clout than Rouhani or Zarif could ever dream of having. It also has influence over the state broadcaster, whose boss is appointed by the IRGC’s patron, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Many IRGC commanders and their supporters opposed the talks that led to the Iran Deal in 2015 (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and had harsh words for Zarif’s friendly appearances with his American counterpart, John Kerry. In Gando, they portray Zarif’s foreign ministry as a place full of dopes and outright spies.
The spy star of the first season was a character named Michael Hashemian who was clearly based on Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American Tehran bureau chief of The Washington Post who was arrested in 2014 along with his wife and fellow journalist Yeganeh Salehi, and spent almost two years in prison. His release in 2016 was part of the nuclear deal with the US.
In case anyone was in doubt, the show’s writer, Arash Ghaderi, said in an interview: “Everything you see in the show actually happened in the Jason Rezaian case.” In fact, every claim the show made about Rezaian (that he had “penetrated” key state institutions on behalf of the CIA, that he spied on the Iranian nuclear program) had been previously published by Mashregh News... and used in 2015 to convict Rezaian of espionage following a sham trial.
During Gando’s first season, Zarif wrote a letter to Khamenei to complain. Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, threatened to sue. Journalist Mohammad Mohajeri claimed that the IRGC’s most well-known general, Ghasem Soleimani (who was still alive at the time), had been unhappy about the show. Soleimani never confirmed or denied this.
None of these tactics stopped the IRGC from going forward with their plan for a second season. The show’s producer wrote to Mahmoud Vaezi and said everything in the show was “real” and “approved by the relevant authorities.” The IRGC’s media outlets published a letter signed by 200 “families of martyrs” who thanked the producers and called for a second season. “Martyrs” are usually a reference to the hundreds of thousands Iranians who died during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War or government supporters who have been assassinated by armed opposition groups.
Censorship After Rouhani Complaint
They have now been granted their wish. In the new season, the focus is on Britain and its alleged infiltration of the Rouhani administration. Tall tales about the power of MI6 and British spies run deep in Iranian history. They have even led to a popular saying, adopted from My Uncle Napoleon, a novel adapted for a TV series in 1976: Whenever something fishy happens, an Iranian might say: “It’s done by the British!” Using theme music from James Bond films, Gando’s new season taps into this paranoiac tradition.
The show’s references are direct and leave little to the imagination. In the very first episode, we see IRGC forces in a car in Tehran with a man obviously meant to represent Ruhollah Zam, a France-based journalist who was abducted during a trip to Iraq and executed in Iran a few months later. A treacherous diplomat in the new season is named Saboonchi, a reference to Zarif’s two top deputies during the nuclear talks, Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht Ravanchi. Takt Ravanchi is Iran’s current chief of mission at the United Nations in New York.
Not to leave anything to chance, the media outlets run by the IRGC complement each episode with stories that point fingers in an even more direct way.
Last week, Gando 2’s fifth episode was shown with a 45-minute delay, which suggested there had been a conflict about its content. Suspicions were quickly confirmed when pro-IRGC outlets published the uncensored version of the episode. One key sentence had been taken out: a character complains about “a spy on the negotiating team” led by Zarif. According to pro-IRGC outlet Mashregh News, Rouhani’s administration had forced the state broadcaster to take the sentence out.
The next day, the sixth episode ran, offering up even more. The show’s lead, a no-nonsense security official, angrily complained about how useless the nuclear negotiating team was. He didn’t name Rouhani or Zarif but quoted verbatim from their speeches on how important the 2015 nuclear deal was and how it would open’s Iran economy... and went on to attack them in the harshest of terms.
After the episode aired, Zarif took to Instagram, where he published a poem by the Persian poet Hafiz and said he’d stay quiet and only “complain to God.” Zarif’s portrayal of himself as an innocent yet wronged hero that had no real power and could do nothing but complain to God is a classic act favored by Iran’s useless reformists. Its original model was set by former president, Mohammad Khatami, who failed to act on the promises that won him the election in 1997 and re-election in 2001. Instead of confronting Khamenei, who opposed reform, Khatami often said he would complain to God, either in this life or the next.
On Clubhouse, Zarif, who has a natural shouting voice, expressed his profound anger about Gando. In answer to several questions, whether relevant or not, he brought up Gando’s new season and accused the show of being “full of lies and entirely fabricated.” The show is “lies, from beginning to the end,” he asserted.
Many of those moderators allowed to ask questions on the app were Zarif’s conservative critics or regime insiders. A few journalists were allowed to ask questions but requests from those writing for diaspora outlets were denied.
The “Spy” This Time
The new season also features a new spy: Mohammad Ali Mousapoor is MI6’s mole in Iran's foreign ministry and one of the show’s main characters.
All Mousapoor’s details, including his facial features, make it clear who he is meant to represent: Mohammad Ali Shabani, a 34-year-old Swedish-Iranian PhD student based in London who reportedly advised the Iran team during negotiations.
Once more, in case anything was in doubt, IRGC-aligned outlets, including those ran by the state broadcaster itself, ran hit pieces on Shabani just as Gando went on air. These pieces detailed Shabani’s biography: he was born in Switzerland, moved to the UK in 2005 and got his BA from SOAS and then went to Tehran to work for a government think tank run by Rouhani.
The articles went on to claim that Shabani had interned with US’s National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in 2007 and traveled to Israel in the same year to meet with the Iranian-born Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar.
Joining in the accusations was one of Zarif’s most ardent political foes, conservative MP Javad Karimi Ghodoosi, who tweeted on March 25 about Shabani’s alleged internship with NIAC and 2007 trip to Israel, adding: “During the nuclear talks, Shabani coordinated between the media campaign inside Iran and other countries but he has now fled.” He said he had warned Zarif about dual nations in his team.
A day after, Shabani responded to Ghodoosi by quoting his tweet and tweeting a famed line from Persian poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of Islam and heresy, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Shabani also wished the MP a happy new year. In a recent tweet, Shabani made fun of the fact that the actor cast to play him in the show was “short and fat” and 45 years old, whereas Shabani was in his twenties during the talks.
On Clubhouse, Zarif defended Shabani and said: “They [Gando] lie to say Mr Shabani was a spy. They accuse those who served their country for no payment.”
Still, the IRGC outlets have continued to attack Zarif and Shabani through their trolls on social media. Ali Alizadeh, a London-based pro-IRGC Twitter activist, accused Shabani of “traveling to Israel and working for the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute.” Iran does not recognize the state of Israel and Iranians are banned from traveling to Israel. The Washington Institute for Middle Eastern Policy is on Iran’s list of “seditious Zionist organizations.” Shabani retorted by saying: “I have NOT met with Israeli organizations in Israel and I have NOT gone to the Washington Institute to ‘sell information’ or otherwise seek a job with them—EVER.” Shabani also said he had been receiving death threats “driven by your LIES” and said he had filed a criminal complaint with the Metropolitan Police in London.