This week a conservative MP for Kashmar, a city in Razavi Khorasan province, added his name to growing calls in parliament for ex-president of Iran Hassan Rouhani to be investigated, and potentially prosecuted, over issues during his time in office. Unlike others, though, Javad Nikbin based his demand on the content of the divisive TV series Gando: a spy thriller produced for the IRIB by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. While the MP’s speech was largely taken as a joke, the content of the show hasn’t always been – and the state broadcaster’s reactions suggest that for the producers at least, Gando is a deadly serious matter.
This week Javad Nikbin, a young principalist cleric who has represented Kashmar city for six terms in parliament, told his colleagues in the legislature – to mixed reactions – that “according to Gando, Rouhani’s government committed violations” that ought to be investigated. “It’s not expedient not to prosecute Hassan Rouhani and the team that betrayed us,” he argued. “Either Gando’s episodes currently being shown on TV are lies, or they are true. If they’re lies it would be better to stop broadcasting it. If they’re true, Rouhani and his team should be prosecuted as soon as possible.
Nikbin’s remarks coincided with a recent flood of demands from hardliners and supporters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Iran’s seventh president, Hassan Rouhani, be put on trial. Others have disagreed, or gone even further: in what may have been a veiled warning to the Supreme Leader’s office, Fazel Meybodi, a reformist cleric, said that were Rouhani put on trial, many others would also find their positions at risk.
Defending Rouhani’s team in the wake of the remarks, Abbas Abdi, a reformist MP, wrote on Twitter: "If these are lies, it won’t suffice to stop broadcasting; the accusers and the broadcaster must also be prosecuted. In any society that deals with complex matters, ignoring the allegations is a sign that they are serious.”
In reality, supporters of Ali Khamenei know perfectly well Rouhani will never stand trial. The intention is rather to humiliate him and his supporters. Plenty of other observers considered the MP’s utterance to be completely pointless, on the basis that Gando – created as it was by the IRGC – is practically a televised indictment of the whole of the Rouhani government and its policies, many of which the IRGC never agreed with.
Gando’s creators have always insisted that every event depicted in the series, now in its second season, is accurate and true to life. This runs to fighter jets taking off to land a plane carrying an aghazadeh – the Persian term used for the children of the Iranian elite, especially those whose family fortunes are the result of corruption – and suitcases stuffed full of real money and dollars illicitly changing hands. The producers’ claim therefore begs the question: if all this is true, why hasn’t it been investigated before?
Figures such as the MP Javad Karimi Ghodusi have repeatedly made outlandish allegations against Rouhani’s top team that were similar, if not identical, to those depicted in the TV series. But none of these have been formally addressed. In one instance, Ghodusi claimed the formerly imprisoned journalist Jason Rezaian had said: “I was so close to Hassan Rouhani, I knew the flavour of his gum." The exchange appeared in the same way in Gando, except the phrase was voiced by a character dubbed ‘Michael Hashemian’.
Through the indirect vehicle of a TV series the IRGC’s intelligence agency has lashed out at a plethora of politicians close to Rouhani. They include Abdolrasoul Dori Esfahani, an Iranian-Canadian accountant who was jailed in 2017 for spying after serving as a member of the nuclear negotiating team, Mohammad Ali Shabani, a 34-year-old Swedish-Iranian PhD student who also reportedly advised the Iran team during negotiations and was painted by the IRGC as a spy, and ex-foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. It has also attacked real-life environmental activists in Iran and Ruhollah Zam, a dissident journalist who was executed last December.
One of the Guards’ other core concerns with Gando seems to be humiliating the Ministry of Intelligence, which falls under the government’s purview. There is a strong emphasis on the idea of “infiltration” of the decision-making structures of the Islamic Republic (a notion popularized by Ayatollah Khamenei).
Ali Asgari, the head of the IRIB, recently described the series as a "strong work" at a ceremony celebrating the casting for Gando 2. Part of its strength, he said, came from “subjects that the Revolutionary Guards shared with the national media."
In Gando there are echoes of previous Iranian TV serials in which ‘fictional’ plots served as a thin foil for shocking accusations against real-life public figures. In Ruhollah Hosseinian’s Cheragh, for instance, figures close to Mohammad Khatami were implicitly blamed for the chain murders of the late 1980s and 1990s.in which Ruhollah Hosseinian attributed the serial killings to people close to Mohammad Khatami. The Safe House series also depicted Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the former head of Bank Melli accused in an infamous corruption three trillion-toman corruption case, was murdered by security agents abroad.
From forced confessions aired on state TV to state-sponsored content at Fajr Film Festival, the presence of the security forces in Iranian film and television has a long and disturbing history. Gando, however, was different in that in both the first season and much of the second, it directly attacked Iranian politicians who were still in office. Its producer Mojtaba Amini has said the series "created a demand in the body of society, leading a new light that will not go out”. He added: “Before this series was made, a security- and politics-oriented series was missing.” Hamid Shahbadi, the deputy director of the IRIB, has gone further, saying the “security genre” is a “necessity of public opinion”.