An American missing in Iran for seven years turned out to be an ex-FBI agent working in secret for rogue CIA operatives.
No, that’s not the plot of the latest episode of Showtime’s “Homeland” – that’s a true story that the Associated Press broke last Thursday about disavowed spy Bob Levinson.
But the series has focused on the contentious relationship between the United States and Iran in its third season, which concludes on Sunday. And incidents like the one revealed this week hammer home the tenuous nature of diplomatic relations with the Middle Eastern country, which have recently reopened for the first time in decades.
Also read: ‘Homeland’ Season 3 Finale Leaks Online
That delicate diplomacy is what has Middle East policy expert Fawaz Gerges worried, because when a wildly successful TV series like “Homeland” makes Iran the bad guy, much more than ratings is at stake.
“‘Homeland’ is poisonous to any attempt to bridge the divide between the two nations,” Gerges told TheWrap. Gerges is currently the Emirates Chair of the Contemporary Middle East at the London School of Economics.
In last week’s episode, Brody (Damian Lewis) makes his way into Iran by claiming responsibility for the CIA headquarters bombing at the end of season two. There, he is heralded on the streets, held up as a hero by common citizens for the brazen attack on America.
Gerges says this sort of imagery is problematic both in terms of how Iranians view us, and how we view them.
“There’s a tendency on the part of Hollywood to reduce the humanity of the so-called ‘other,’ whether being the Russians, or being the Chinese, Vietnamese, or now the Iranians,” he said. “This is the tendency, a very destructive tendency.”
Gerges explained that lumping together the Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim worlds may make for convenient storytelling, but it’s harmful to Americans’ perception of these groups as individuals.
By the same token, painting Iranians with such a wide, negative brush colors their opinions of Americans.
“The portrayal of Iran and Iranians as terrorists, as violent, as scheming, really enforces Iranians’ images of the United States as a hostile nation, as a nation that cannot be trusted,” he said.
“It’s not only harmful and insidious, but it does basically create and really enforce hostilities between the people of the two nations.”
Producers of “Homeland” are aware of the tension their counterterrorism plots has the potential to elicit.
“This is an American export,” he continued. “We make really good movies and television shows, so it is what the world sees of us.”
Iran is not the only country that may be sensitive to its television portrayal. The government of Lebanon is considering legal action against the show’s producers because of the negative light in which the country was shed during the second season. Lebanese minister of tourism Fadi Abboud told the Associated Press that the portrayal of Beirut in a key scene as a “hotbed of violence” – with militia patrolling the streets instead of the cafes and bookstores that actually populate the area – was harmful to the country’s image.
And the government of Venezuela objected to an October episode of “Homeland” that depicts capital city Caracas’ “Tower of David” – a decrepit, half-finished skyscraper that’s essentially a lawless slum – as full of drug lords and militants.
The government was not happy about that portrayal, according to Foreign Policy, saying in a statement on its website:
“What reasons might there be for Venezuela to appear in a show so openly supported by President Obama, and backed by the CIA? Are they preparing the American people to feel justified in some aggression against our country, or for more open support of Venezuela’s own rightwing radicals? Only time will tell.”
That sort of response is unlikely from the government of Iran, Gerges said, but that the people tend to see American cultural exports as inextricably linked to the propaganda machine of the U.S. government.
But Georgetown University School of Foreign Service professor Raymond Tanter disagreed, arguing that that popular opinion in Middle East countries is often at odds with those countries’ governments.
“When America is anti-regime… the people tend to be pro-America,” Tanter explained in a phone interview with TheWrap, pointing to anti-American sentiment during the 2011 Egyptian uprising against American-supported president Hosni Mubarak, versus pro-American feelings when Iranians protested 2009 election results that showed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning in a landslide.
Tanter added, “Most of the people in the Middle East know that Hollywood is Hollywood, and that’s part of American freedom is Hollywood can do what it wants to do.”