Gando, a new series on Iranian state TV, portrays Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers as MI6-style secret agents who weed out spies and jail corrupt officials in an attempt to cast new light on the much feared intelligence branch of the corps, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Outside of the state-made series, IRGC officers are known for arrests of dual citizens, academics and environmentalists on often unproven espionage charges, followed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issuing warnings of "infiltration" efforts by enemies of the Islamic Republic.
The series claims to be based on true stories, including an Iranian-American who is reportedly based at the Washington Post reported Jason Rezaian, who was arrested in 2014 and later imprisoned on accusations of espionage. Rezaian later sued Iran and the IRGC after being released in 2016 as part of a prisoner swap which coincided with the Iranian JCPOA nuclear deal.
The suit claimed that Iranian authorities "held him hostage for the unlawful purpose of extorting concessions," and specifically accused the IRGC of causing Rezaian "severe personal injuries and other irreparable harm" by means of abuses such as "unlawful acts of terrorism, torture, hostage taking."
Rezaian claimed that Iran accused him of espionage among other unspecified offenses which he labeled as "blatant lies" and mechanisms used as part of "a futile effort to justify its crimes."
"In reality, Jason committed no crime and was never legitimately tried, convicted, or sentenced -- even according to Iranian standards," AFP quoted the lawsuit as saying.
Rezaian's lawsuit also states that the Iranian captor's "threatened to maim and kill his wife Yeganeh [Salehi]," also a journalist, who was imprisoned for 72 days.
Gando, directed by Javad Afshar, is named after Iran's short-muzzled crocodiles "known for their patience and tenacity," according to RFE/RL. The series is based on information from "security bodies that are responsible for the country's security," Afshar said.
The series is "ultimately a product on behalf of and in consultation with the IRGC's intelligence and security organization" to shape the narrative, blame foreigners for the country's problems and undermine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's government, according to Saied Golkar, an assistant professor at the Political Science Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In the first episode of Gando, a suspected spy, the son of a government official, is caught with a suitcase full of dollars and gold coins after IRGC agents force the commercial flight he's on to land at an Iranian airport with fighter jets, according to RFE/RL.
"They were supposed to be role models for the children of this country," says one secret agent to another after the arrest. "What happened? They haven't been able to be models for their own kids."
A female spy who poses as a conservationist also features in the series and has been interpreted as an attempt to justify the arrest of eight environmentalists for over a year on espionage charges.
Producers say that the series drawing large audiences. The message of the series to those outside Iran is that "[Iranian intelligence agents] are highly alert and watching everything," according to Afshar.
"Given how the Trump administration officials -- like [U.S. national-security adviser] John Bolton and [Trump personal attorney] Rudy Giuliani -- have spoken at [Iranian opposition group Mujahedin Khalq] rallies and given Trump's aggressive policies towards Iran, including [Washington's] close relations with Saudi Arabia, the [United Arab Emirates], and Israel, the producers of Gando are able to capitalize on this moment when in Iran it feels like the whole world is against it," said Narges Bajoghli, an assistant professor of Middle East studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, RFE/RL reported.
"In this climate, it is not hard to understand how an entertaining show that casts a wide net of foreign influence and espionage to weaken the country can be popular," she added. Although the question remains "to what extent it is successful," according to Golkar.
Journalist Masoumeh Naseri tweeted that while Gando attempts to portray the IRGC as "law-abiding, smart, and James Bond-[like]," each scene of the series is full of "deceit."
"The memoirs and writing of security prisoners contradicts Gando's narratives," Naseri said, according to RFE/RL.
State TV channels have also been able to garner a following internationally through social media and live broadcasts, as a Press TV director explained in an interview with the Iranian Fars News Agency.
The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) owns and markets TV sitcoms and other programs for Persian speakers around the world, a report by the Shahrvand newspaper in Tehran said, according to Farda.
IRIB's entertainment channel iFilm has a YouTube channel with over 25,000 followers, according to the report. Videos uploaded on the channel have been viewed 15 million times as of late June.
Press TV currently broadcasts from Washington, New York, London, Beirut and Damascus, and is planning broadcasts in Egypt and Palestine, a network administrator told Fars.
A Press TV director used Press TV's coverage of the felling of a US drone earlier this month as an example of its foreign influence. While the US has stated that the drone was shot down over international waters, the Iranian narrative says that the drone was flying in Iranian airspace. The Press TV director told Fars that he felt that they had been successful in conveying the Iranian narrative to the rest of the world.