25/01/2013 12:26 GMT | Updated 27/03/2013 05:12 GMT

BBC Persian Gets Iranians and Israelis Talking

It's not often that ordinary Iranians and Israelis get the chance to talk to each other, but that's exactly what happened this week live on air on the BBC's Persian television service.

In a special Israeli election day edition of the BBC's popular Persian language interactive show, Nowbat-e Shoma (Your Turn), callers from Iran put questions to a panel of Persian-speaking Israelis in a BBC studio in Jerusalem.

What came across clearly was that despite the deep tensions between their two governments, Iranians and Israelis actually have a surprising amount in common.

"Although the conversations got pretty heated at times, it was great that everyone put their points across politely and really engaged with each other," says Leyla Khodabakhshi, the editor of the programme.

It's a criminal offence for Iranian citizens to visit Israel and Iran does not allow Israelis to visit the country.

Many young Iranians know very little about Israel beyond the generally negative stories covered by their country's tightly-controlled media.

But the one crucial point of connection between the two countries is the fact that there are as many as a quarter of a million people of Iranian descent living in Israel.

All three members of the BBC panel - journalists Babak Eshaghi and Rani Omrani, and university lecturer Tamar Gindin - have roots in Iran.

Babak spoke for many Iranian Israelis when he tried to express the pain he feels over the current problems between the two countries.

"Israel is like my father and Iran is my mother," he said. "I don't want them to fight."

The prospect of Israeli military action against Iranian nuclear facilities was obviously a key talking point during the programme. Some Iranian callers were keen to stand up for national honour.

"Israel can't attack Iran," said Majid from Isfahan, "They don't have the military capacity."

"Israel can't do anything against Iran," said Abolfazl from Tehran. "They couldn't even manage to deal with the missiles Iran supplied to Hamas in the recent Gaza conflict."

Rani Omrani swiftly responded to Abolfazl: "Israel is definitely able to attack Iran but it's not about to do so because this may put the Middle East security at risk," he said. "Israel could have bombed the whole of the Gaza strip but it didn't because Israel doesn't want to kill civilians."

But callers - and Iranian audiences more widely - were surprised to hear from the panel that it was actually the economy, rather than the prospect of war with Iran, that had been uppermost in the minds of Israeli voters.

"Israelis have been taking to the streets to protest against the rising cost of housing," Tamir Gandin explained. "Prices are going up but people's incomes have stayed the same."

That certainly struck a chord in Iran where rising prices, high unemployment and uncertainty about the future are all facts of everyday life.

It was these insights into everyday life in Israel that really seemed to capture the imagination of callers, prompting more thoughts on the parallels between Iife in Iran and Israeli - both countries where secular and religious interest groups often clash, and where politicians are not always what they seem.

"Israel is just like a part of Iran's body and vice versa," said Saeed, an Iranian calling in from London. "...They can't oppose each other. Everything is just like a game! It looks like they are opposing each other, but in fact Iranians and Israelis are not enemies."

What made this programme even more remarkable was that fact that several of the people who called in from Iran were supporters of their country's hardline government.

BBC Persian is not allowed to operate inside Iran. Its satellite television programmes are regularly jammed by the Iranian authorities, and Iranians are firmly discouraged from speaking to the BBC.

All of this means that the service usually attracts a younger, more liberal-minded audience and not the kind of people who would vote for President Ahmadinejad.

"People from the government side rarely speak to the BBC," says Leyla Khodabakshi. "It made this particular debate much more meaningful that they called us to share their views and to talk to the Israelis. "

Not all BBC Persian viewers and listeners have welcomed our coverage of the Israeli elections this week.

"Why is the BBC spending so much time talking about Israel?" has been a frequent question in emails to BBC Persian.

Leyla Khodabakhshi says: "It's not yet clear to us if this question has been prompted by a genuine objection to our content, or a more general weariness with the regular diet of anti-Israeli reporting on Iranian state television."

A quick glance on the steadily increasing number of people clicking on the BBC Persian Facebook story about the Your Turn edition from Jerusalem would suggest that maybe it's the latter.