Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan) is a rookie Mossad agent tasked with infiltrating an Iranian power plant in advance of an Israeli air strike. As a hacker, her weapon of choice is a keyboard. But Tamar’s skills aren’t strictly digital. To complete her mission, she uses social engineering, impersonation, seduction, and if necessary—murder.
The simmering conflict between Iran and Israel provides fertile ground for replacing the Cold War narratives that have dominated spy fiction since the end of World War Two. Featuring dialogue in three different languages, Tehran seems well positioned to take up the mantle.
Filmed in Greece, Tehran began as an Israeli production meant for a domestic audience. In June 2020, Apple TV+ purchased the international rights and became the exclusive global streaming partner for the series. Tehran was awarded Best Drama at the 2021 International Emmy Awards.
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‘Tehran’: Spoiler-Free Synopsis
Iranian-born Israeli spy Tamar Rabinyan arrives in Tehran and assumes the identity of a local woman employed at the city’s biggest power plant. Her mission is clear: she must disable Iranian air defenses to facilitate an Israeli air strike on a secret nuclear research facility.
If she can infiltrate the plant’s computer systems, she can gain control of the power grid and disable the city’s anti-aircraft weapons. But her first attempt is foiled when her boss finds her in a restricted area and tries to rape her.
Tamar defends herself, ultimately killing her boss and throwing the mission into chaos.
After a brush with the police and a narrow escape, Tamar convinces her aunt (who she’s never met) to take her into hiding.
But the incident at the plant has serious repercussions. Tamar has caught the attention of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Her cover has been blown, and tenacious chief investigator Faraz Kamali (Shaun Toub) is breathing down her neck.
When her uncle objects to her presence in their home, Tamar finds herself with very few choices. She attends a student protest and befriends a group of activists, eventually seducing Milad (Shervin Alanabi), a fellow hacker who supports regime change in Iran.
Using his apartment as her base, Tamar builds trust within the group and sets a new plan in motion. She must find another way to disable the grid, all while evading the authorities, hiding her true identity, and navigating a blossoming romance with Milad.
Tehran’s second season begins with Tamar and Milad making preparations to permanently flee Iran.
After working informal jobs under an assumed name, Milad has finally earned enough cash to facilitate an escape to Canada. Unbeknownst to Milad, he’s being watched by the Revolutionary Guard.
Milad thinks Tamar has left the Mossad, that she’s had no contact with the agency at all.
But that’s not exactly true.
The botched air strike had repercussions back in Israel. Her superiors have changed. Her status seems to have changed as well. And when the Mossad comes calling with another mission, Tamar has two choices: flee to Canada with Milad, or remain in Tehran until the mission is complete.
Tamar accepts the mission.
An injured Israeli pilot, captured during the scuttled air strike, is in police custody at a local hospital. The Mossad has plans to break him out. They need Tamar to hack into the hospital’s computer network and facilitate his rescue.
The operation doesn’t go exactly as planned. Tamar is forced to leave her terminal and intervene on foot.
Her team successfully extracts the pilot, but Tamar is trapped and left behind. Just as she’s about to be captured, she’s bailed out by a female doctor.
This is our first encounter with Marjan Montzami (Glenn Close), a psychologist working deep undercover for the Mossad. We also discover that Marjan has a new patient, Nahid Kamali, wife of Chief Inspector Faraz Kamali (from season one).
On her journey home from the hospital, Tamar learns her Aunt has been executed by the Iranian Government, turned in as a collaborator by her own daughter. Naturally, Tamar feels responsible.
Tamar makes plans to meet Milad. On his way to their rendez-vous, Milad narrowly escapes arrest. Inspector Faraz and his team are getting close.
With their cover freshly blown, Tamar and Milad find themselves with a new mandate.
In exchange for an extraction, they will remain in Tehran and carry out another mission: Tamar will avenge her Aunt by assassinating Qasem Mohammadi, Head of the Revolutionary Guard.
Review: ‘Tehran’ on Apple TV+
Unlike most contemporary spy fiction, including the unfortunate Slow Horses (2022)(Apple TV+) the stakes on Tehran always feel high.
Tamar’s position deep undercover presents a risk that never quite leaves the foreground: if no one knows your true identity, no one will know if you die.
In short, Tamar succeeds where James Bond and Jason Bourne routinely fail: we actually care about what happens to her.
Episodic in scale, cinematic in scope, both seasons of Tehran would work well as feature length films. But Tamar’s struggle to balance her personal values with those of her country make Tehran best suited for television. Perhaps a shallower rendition of modern espionage could be explored in a two hour film, but the various character arcs at play in Tehran require more time to flesh themselves out.
‘Tehran’ Is A Modern Thriller For A Sophisticated Audience
Unlike most of our reviews at TLTDE, Tehran has both feet firmly in the “thriller” category. Well executed thrillers have a few things in common:
- Step One: Put the protagonist in a dangerous situation. On Tehran, danger quite literally surrounds Tamar as she attempts to fulfill her mission without revealing her true identity or outing her fellow agents.
- Step Two: Establish the stakes. On Tehran the stakes are about as high as they can be: certain death for individual spies and nuclear war for the countries who control them.
- Step Three: Create concern. We have like to the protagonist enough to care about their fate. We have to fear for their safety and root for their success. In Tamar, we see a human being, not a robotic killing machine. Her bravery and humanity in the face of authoritarian state actors is more than enough to endear her to the audience.
With these essential pillars in place, the thriller can progress toward the climax, unhindered by a lack of audience engagement. The noose tightens. The tension builds. Options for escape vanish one by one by one.
As the suspense ratchets up, the audience stays slightly ahead of the cast. We peer around dark corners. We glimpse the knife glinting in the shadows. We spot the killer just before the characters do.
When the climax nears, a time sensitive, life threatening, do-or-die deadline must be imposed. This element is often expressed as some kind of countdown. Think Ridley Scott’s Alien or any of the Mission: Impossible movies.
Tehran’s season one finale is a masterclass in thriller writing. The title says it all: “Episode 8—Five Hours Until The Bombing Run”.
The riveting climax shows both protagonist AND antagonist racing against the SAME clock, while simultaneously unraveling a double double-cross.
Beyond this expert storytelling, the mirroring between the two competing sides gives Tehran a complex socio-political resonance that many modern thrillers sorely lack.
On ‘Tehran,’ Ambiguity Underpins Dramatic Tension
Tehran succeeds because unlike The Spy (2019)(Netflix), it takes no firm moral position. In other words, Tehran resists choosing sides.
While the story is told from the perspective of an Israeli agent, the show does little to glorify the Mossad. The series presents both the Mossad and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard as competing entities striving to protect the interests of their respective nations.
Ambiguity lies at the heart of the dramatic tension. This is not by accident. Tehran asks tough questions about the ongoing conflict: Does any of this fighting really make a difference? Are the Israelis just as culpable as the Iranians? Are their actions even worse?
Certain viewers may bristle at the show’s equivocal position. Such viewers are either taking their television too seriously, or they haven’t spent much time studying the spy novel canon.
Read Graham Greene. Read John LeCarre. Both authors present their protagonists as weary vanguards for the cause, unsure if their side is right or wrong, unclear if their actions will ever truly make a difference.
Tehran has been made in this tradition, but thankfully, without the stuffy British worldview or any labyrinthine plotting.
Is ‘Tehran’ On Apple TV+ Worth Watching?
Given the current political climate in Iran, the fact Tehran is populated by strong female characters provides poignancy, relevance and although fictional—a sense of equity.
If you want bikini babes with sexy names and go-go-gadget sports cars, check your DVD collection. If you want suspenseful covert warfare rooted in real-world conflict, Tehran has you covered.
You can watch Season 1 and 2 of Tehran on Apple TV+.
In February 2023, it was renewed for a third season, with actor Hugh Laurie (House, The Night Manager, Road Kill) set to join the cast.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our post on Apple TV’s Severance.