A blindfolded man is being driven in a car and asks where he is. “Show him,” the passenger in the front seat says. The man’s blindfold is taken off, and he sees Tehran’s Azadi Tower. He is Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian opposition activist, portrayed here in a fictional TV drama but who in real life was lured to Baghdad in 2019 and captured by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Zam was brought to Iran, where he faced a closed-door trial on charges of espionage and stoking violence. Last December, he was executed.

Zam’s return to Tehran is the opening shot of the new season of Gando, a spy-thriller series, which began airing over Nowruz, the New Year holiday in Iran, earlier this year. The show was broadcast on state television, often a bastion for conservative critics of moderate President Hassan Rouhani and his signature foreign-policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal.

Amid diplomatic progress in Vienna to revive the deal and Iran’s fast-approaching presidential election, the country is seeing a surge of political jockeying as all sides seek to shape public opinion. At stake for the adversarial factions operating under the umbrella of the country’s government is the direction of Iran’s relations with the West, determining the successor to the 82-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and whether the theocracy should become more insular or inclusive. Within this context, hard-line forces are making clear through shows like Gando that they seek the removal of their reformist and moderate rivals from Iran’s political landscape.

The official election season in Iran is very short. With the election on June 18, prospective candidates only start registering with the Interior Ministry on May 11, a process that lasts five days and is followed by vetting done by the Guardian Council, a constitutionally mandated body of 12 clerics and jurists. The final list of approved candidates does not become clear until May 26, after which the election cycle truly kicks off for less than four weeks.

Despite the restrictions and limitations of Iran’s political system, presidential elections have historically been competitive, and government policies are genuinely affected by their outcome. If past is precedent, the monthlong official election season will be marked by fierce campaigning, frank televised debates, and grassroots mobilization. However, this year’s election comes on the heels of a record-low turnout in the last election, which was for parliament in 2020, leading many to believe that the government is facing a major legitimacy crisis.

For Iranian conservatives, a low turnout would be advantageous. Iran’s urban, educated middle and upper classes have time and again swung elections to reformists and moderates when they turned out, as happened in Rouhani’s electoral victories in 2013 and 2017. Conservatives have won when this constituency has largely stayed at home, as happened in the 2005 presidential election that brought the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power or in the last election that ushered in a conservative-dominated parliament. Despite their weak public standing, conservatives have outsized influence over state television and other government resources that are used to make shows like Gando and advance their preferred narratives.

The events of the last several years have cast a dark shadow over this year’s presidential election. The Trump administration’s withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and imposition of severe economic sanctions have debilitated Rouhani and his political camp. Meanwhile, the brutal suppression of nationwide protests in November 2019 by security forces, which saw at least 304 killed according to Amnesty International, has disenchanted many from any political participation.

If the United States returns to the accord and delivers on its sanctions relief obligations, Rouhani’s battered legacy would be restored to a substantial degree. Those closely associated with Rouhani and the deal, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, would also have greater political capital with which to mount a run for president if the agreement is restored.

Zarif is widely believed to be the only moderate political figure who can spur a large turnout, unite the reformist and centrist vote, and have a real chance of winning the election. However, the savvy diplomat, who received his Ph.D. in the United States, has been emphatic that he will not run for president. Regardless, as Gando and other actions from hard-line media and institutions make clear, conservatives view Zarif as a serious threat and are seeking to sabotage both his potential candidacy and prospects for the nuclear deal’s revival.

Gando is a product of the Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute, which is close to the IRGC and the hard-liner-controlled Basij paramilitary organization. The vice chairman of this institute is Mehdi Taeb, who is the brother of Hossein Taeb, the head of the IRGC’s intelligence agency. Mehdi Taeb has been an ardent critic of Rouhani and heads another organization, the Ammar Headquarters, dedicated to countering “soft war” against Iran. Meanwhile, his brother has overseen the arrests of numerous Iranians and dual nationals on baseless charges of trying to “infiltrate” Iran’s officialdom and topple the system from within.

The plot of Gando fits squarely in the worldview of the Taeb brothers and hard-line institutions. The series portrays Rouhani’s administration, particularly the foreign ministry, as infiltrated by foreign spies during the negotiations that led to the nuclear deal. The foreign minister character, clearly based on Zarif, is a naive, bearded middle-aged man who is desperate for the negotiations to succeed and easily manipulated by an MI6 agent who has infiltrated his team. It is widely recognized that the aim of the show is to turn public opinion against Zarif, who has consistently polled as one of the most popular politicians in Iran.

But the show’s objectives may be more audacious. Fereydoun Majlesi, a former Iranian diplomat, suggested in a recent interview that Gando’s smears of Zarif are aimed at destroying not only his character but his “school of thought,” meaning his support for dialogue and relations with the West. Majlesi even asserted that some hard-line institutions in Iran are laying the groundwork to prosecute Zarif and Rouhani after they leave office.

Zarif has publicly condemned Gando and described it as “lies from beginning to end.” Protests from the Rouhani administration have actually led to it being taken off air after two weeks, with the rest of the season scheduled to return after the presidential election. The episodes can easily be found online, including on YouTube, where they average around 100,000 views each, a testament to the show’s seeming popularity in a country where YouTube is blocked. Zarif also recently wrote a letter to Khamenei asking him to push back against pressure on Iran’s negotiators amid the nuclear talks in Vienna and emphasized that he would not run for president.

However, hard-liner attacks on Zarif, Rouhani, and the nuclear deal have continued unabated. After a recent round of talks in Vienna concluded, state television aired a prime time documentary that wildly portrayed the nuclear deal as a nefarious plot hatched by U.S.-based NGOs funded by George Soros and imposed on Iran as part of a “soft regime change” strategy. At the same time, according to Rouhani officials, state television refused to air a live speech of Rouhani discussing the negotiations and Press TV, the English-language arm of state television, got in a public spat with Iran’s deputy foreign minister over the developments in Vienna.

Adding to Zarif’s troubles is the leak of a recent private interview with the economist Saeed Laylaz conducted in February of this year. The interview was for official government records, and the timing of the leak makes it suspect and potentially reflective of an effort by hard-liners to further tarnish Zarif’s image and the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.

In the leaked audio interview, Zarif makes bombshell claims, including that Russia opposed the nuclear agreement on grounds that it would improve Iran’s relations with the West; that Iran’s diplomatic corps was regularly subservient to the military and decisions of the military and IRGC commander Qassem Suleimani; and that he was told to deny the accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner after Suleimani’s assassination, even though senior officials knew Iranian missiles had been fired at it.

Iran’s presidential election is only two months away and yet it is still uncertain who the front-runners will be. Conservative forces, for all their attacks on Rouhani and Zarif, are divided themselves. Their best hope is Ebrahim Raisi, who lost to Rouhani in the 2017 election. Raisi has been riding high in opinion polls since becoming judiciary chief and overseeing an anti-corruption drive that has seen hundreds charged from within the county’s political, military, and economic elite, though the IRGC has avoided major scrutiny.

However, it is unclear if Raisi will run. There are many others who seek to garner the conservative vote, including Saeed Mohammad, who formerly ran the IRGC’s engineering arm, a massive conglomerate that engages in everything from infrastructure construction to mining and defense projects. On the other side, moderate former Member of Parliament Ali Motahari, who advocated for increased political openness, has announced he will run, as has Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist dissident who spent seven years in prison. Many speculate Zarif will run despite his denials, or perhaps Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization who helped negotiate the nuclear deal. Any of them could still be disqualified by the Guardian Council, which has the final say.

What is unambiguously clear right now is that hard-line opponents of the nuclear deal in the country, who were greatly empowered when Donald Trump was U.S. president, are now seeking to consolidate total power. If their artistic productions are anything to go by, their ultimate aim may be to excise their reformist and moderate rivals from Iran’s political system.

Source » foreignpolicy