Iranian-American, Holly Dagres, Gives Insight on U.S.-MENA Foreign Policy and Building Dialogue

Iranian nuclear deal
Middle East Collective and Women in Foreign Policy has launched a new partnership to support the work of Muslim-American and Middle Eastern-American women in the United States. Every month, on the anniversary of Donald Trump’s accessing the White House, we will feature an exclusive interview with a progressive woman working in foreign policy.

Whitney: What do you do and what is The Iranist?

I’m an analyst and commentator on the Middle East with a focus on Iran. I wasn’t planning to have a country focus, but I realized having lived in Cairo for about five and a half years that Iran is very much misunderstood in the Arab World, as much as it is in America. Given my upbringing in Tehran and being Iranian-American, I decided to focus on Iran.

Holly Dagres Iranian America
Follow Holly Dagres on Twitter.

I set up The Iranist because I noticed a lot of people are trying to understand Iran due to the Iran Deal, yet it was hard to to find a place gathering all relevant information.

Iran is a sexy topic right now, so every other day there’s a story coming out in the media. I thought it would be useful to have a newsletter that would curate all of this. I’ve been doing The Iranist for about a year and a half and I really like it. It keeps me on my A-game on Iran news.

We have an eclectic group of people that follow it: analysts, journalists, NGO workers, investors, and so on. It comes out once a week and it covers a host of topics including domestic issues, foreign policy, human rights, trade, investment and, of course, the Iran Deal.

Lucie: How do you find reliable news sources to use in your newsletter?

I depend on a host of news agencies. The typical ones would be Reuters, AP, New York Times, Washington Post, but there’s a number of other websites that also put out solid Middle East and Iran articles, like Al-Monitor.

Iran is a sexy topic right now, so every other day there’s a story coming out in the media. I thought it would be useful to have a newsletter that would curate all of this.

Curating takes up a lot of time. I find myself every day copying and pasting links into a Word document and then by the end of the week, I sit and look at what the top headlines were.

Then I decide from there what I’m going to cover before it goes out each Friday. You really have to pay attention to the news or else you’re going to lose grasp of what was happening in the past week.

Whitney: What are main challenges you face in your work on a day to day basis and in general?

The main challenge is making sure translations–from Iranian commanders or the Supreme Leader–are accurate. Sometimes things get lost in translation. I’ll give you an example. Years ago, someone quoted former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map.

Roollah-khomeini

That was an inaccurate translation. He said that Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Revolution, claimed Israel would be wiped from the pages of history. He never made the declaration that Iran literally wants to wipe Israel off the map.

Another challenge is the fluidity of a story. Every week there’s at least one story that grows over the days, especially right now with the Trump administration.

Donald Trump might tweet something, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might say something in a speech, then White House spokesperson Sean Spicer might say something completely different. You have to make sure you don’t overlook anything that has been said.

Lucie: Are you paid to do this newsletter? Whitney and I both work on our websites for free and it’s something we’ve been talking and thinking about frequently, because it’s a lot of time and dedication. How do you feel about it?

The Iranist is pro bono. I would like some money to come in, but realistically it’s a labor of love. Like I said, it keeps me on my A-game because I’m focusing on Iran. It gives me the opportunity to talk about literally all things on Iran. It’s kind of like my weekly homework, so I don’t mind doing it.

iranian news

I think what’s nice is to see more and more people subscribing, which I’m sure is the same feeling you get when people click on your website. It’s exciting and that makes you feel good and want to keep doing it.

I’m hoping to eventually band together with a think tank or a news agency. I’m trying to figure that out still, but I, too, am actually starting to do interviews. I think hopefully that will bring more clicks and make people aware of my brand.

Whitney: You mentioned Trump and his comments earlier and I know many Iranian-Americans are quite terrified of how it’s going to pan out in regards to U.S. relations with Iran. Do you think those relations are currently changing under Trump and what do you see happening to U.S.-MENA foreign policy in the next four years?

That’s a loaded question, but honestly it’s really complicated to tell. From the get-go, Donald Trump said he wanted to tear up the Iran Deal or at least change it in some shape or form. I think his aggressive Tweets on Twitter show he wants to play hardball with Tehran, but at the same time, that’s not very realistic. I’ll give you a couple of examples of why.

First, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said he doesn’t like the Iran Deal, but he will deal with it. This has been his stance before he took office. We have the House Speaker Paul Ryan also saying he doesn’t like the Iran Deal, but it’s what we have.

Russia last week said, “Iran is our friend, we have relations and don’t know why Trump is so keen on getting rid of this Iran Deal.” What Russia said is very important because Trump has this love affair with Putin.

Now we have Putin’s own government coming out and saying they defend the Iran Deal. I think that is going to be complicated for Trump. Having that been said, I think the Iran Deal is hard to tear up since it was made with five other world powers.

You have Russia, China, France, Germany, the UK, the European Union, and the United States. It is a lot more complicated than just saying, “we are going to get rid of this Iran Deal.

At the same time, we really can’t predict the future, especially when somebody like Donald Trump tweets or waffles on stuff. He doesn’t have a sound policy, whether it’s on Iran or the Middle East as a whole. The only thing you can really guarantee right now is that he is siding with Arab leaders like Saudi Arabia.

What is going to be a problem though is there’s an Iran presidential election in May coming up and there’s going to be a lot of problems with the hardliners in Iran. They are very keen on destroying the Iran Deal and making President Hassan Rouhani look bad.

We really can’t predict the future, especially when somebody like Donald Trump tweets or waffles on stuff. He doesn’t have a sound policy, whether it’s on Iran or the Middle East as a whole. The only thing you can really guarantee right now is that he is siding with Arab leaders like Saudi Arabia.

The more Trump does stuff to hurt the moderates, like Hassan Rouhani, the more it’s going to pander to the hardliners and that’s something we need to watch closely.

Lucie: You’re a journalist, analyst, and commentator. One of the things that has been interesting for me recently is objectivity. How do you define objectivity vs. reporting something which is clearly wrong? I’ve got a few friends at Buzzfeed who have quite strong feelings about this, so just reporting the facts is in itself quite subjective.

Iranian women
Holly speaking at Creative Industry Summit in Egypt (2014)

I don’t consider myself a journalist in the same regard as your friends at Buzzfeed because I do analysis and commentary. My job is to give my opinion. I Tweet what I want, I post stuff on Facebook, I do write articles here and then, but most of them are opinion pieces. 

I think I have more leeway than say Buzzfeed. If any journalist tweets opinion, he/she could easily get fired, so he/she has to be objective. I think because of my job I can say things more liberally, but at the same time you really have to be careful.

Not just journalists, but me as well because right now America is very polarized and anything could set people off. When it comes to my analysis and commentary on Iran, I find that it’s really problematic to give a nuance on the country without being criticized and I get that a lot.

I get called a lobbyist for Iran and an Iran apologist, just because I don’t fit the mainstream view on the country, which is regime change and anti-Iran deal. It is a problem in that regard, but it’s not the same as I would say a journalist has to deal with.

Whitney: The hijab is always a topic of debate in the Middle East and America. You grew up and went to school in Tehran and I remember talking with you at AUC about the chador, but I never asked you about how you felt about it or if you wore it. This is a topic that’s going to be prevalent in the coming months in the U.S., so do you think it empowers women and is this something to focus on due to those tensions we’ve been talking about?

I was just turning 13 years old when I moved to Iran. It was the biggest culture shock of my whole life. We didn’t wear the chador, but I wore the hijab (a headscarf and manteau). 

I’m sure you’ve seen picture of girls in hijab in Tehran, they tend to wear it very liberally these days. They are very fashionable. There’s even a fashion blog called the Tehran Times and it showcases Iranian street fashion. It’s very cool to check out.

When I moved there in February 1999 it was really daunting because I’m from southern California and I was used to wearing shorts and t-shirts. I hated covering up and it was hard to deal with.

I didn’t know how to wear a headscarf properly, it would slide off my head always. I didn’t understand why I had to wear it and I didn’t understand Iran at all. My family never gave me “Iran 101” and I just kind of ended up in that situation.

I had to learn bits and pieces on my own essentially when it came to history and U.S.-Iran relations. At that young age, I slowly started learning a lot about why things were the way they were in Iran. I think one of the earlier eye opening conversations, it was probably six months into living in Tehran.

Iranian revolution

A family friend was visiting from California and I was a very curious kid. We started talking and I was like, “Why do we have to wear the veil? This is so backwards. Why can’t men cover up too?

The family friend made an interesting point and said, “Look at the Orthodox Jews and look at the Christians, they are also covered. Nuns cover up. Orthodox Jews either wear wigs or the cover their hair in something that looks like hijab essentially, but they wrap it up around their head.” I was surprised at what I was hearing, but it made sense.

Having that been said, as I started studying Iranian history, I realized Iranian women traditionally did cover up. This entire idea of hijab or non-hijab is actually a new thing. When Reza Pahlavi, the Shah’s father, came to power in the 1920’s, he abolished the veil and because of that he faced a lot of opposition in society, especially the conservatives and of course the mullahs.  

As I started studying Iranian history, I realized Iranian women traditionally did cover up. This entire idea of hijab or non-hijab is actually a new thing.

Historically, the mullahs played an important role in Iranian politics. They were involved in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution and even PM Mohammad Mossadegh’s coup in 1953. They were always present in Iran–they weren’t something that came out of nowhere. 

Reza Shah’s banning of the veil was a forced Westernization onto Iranian women. He made them wear Western clothes and was actually inspired by Turkey’s Kamal Mustafa Ataturk. A lot of the reforms that were going on in Turkey, Iran took and kind of pushed it on it’s own people, except it backfired eventually when the 1979 Revolution happened.

When the Revolution happened there wasn’t talk of forced hijab. When it finally became a conversation, it was too late. Women did go out and protest and they were very angry by this, but they didn’t succeed.

Reza Shah’s banning of the veil was a forced Westernization onto Iranian women. He made them wear Western clothes and was actually inspired by Turkey’s Kamal Mustafa Ataturk. 

What a lot of people don’t understand about the veil, and especially when it comes to Iran, is that as much as it was a hindrance it was also a blessing for some women. A lot of Iranian families were very conservative and if it weren’t for the hijab, their daughters would’ve taken on traditional roles and become housewives.

As a result, a lot of these women, who would have stayed home everyday, started getting an education. Around the Revolution there was probably 50-60 percent literacy, but by the early 21st century, Iran’s literacy rate had doubled to 98.9 percent.

A lot of people tend to look at the veil as a hindrance, but I’d like to say it actually did a lot more good than bad, at least when it came to education. It is easy to say, “Oh, the veil is a bad thing, everybody needs to be free,” but it doesn’t explain why things are the way they are or how it helped some Iranian women–not always of course.

Iranian women face constant harassment from the morality police. And I, personally, believe women should be free to dress as they please. However, it’s not something the West should decide for Iranian women. Iranian women should decide on their own.

If they listed problems they are dealing with in Iran, I think finding a job and making money to get by and raise a family would be more of a priority than being veiled or unveiled.

HD MEC & WIFP

Lucy: You are a 3rd culture kid, you grew up partly in the U.S. and partly in Iran. Now, and as you were growing up, where do you feel you belong?

I’m sure both of you might feel this way, but I think home is wherever I live. My journey has been a little interesting. 

Beside the fact that I lived in Tehran and Los Angeles, the reason I’m in Cairo right now is because I always felt like, “Yes, I’m very Iranian American and I’m very proud of both sides, but I didn’t feel like I belong in L.A. and I didn’t feel like I belonged in Tehran.

There were certain hindrances with living in Iran. For example, I couldn’t pursue a career in politics and speak freely the way I do right now. When I was a teenager, one of my best friends in high school was actually the Egyptian ambassador to Tehran’s daughter.

We called him “ambassador,” but technically he was the chargé d’affaires because there were no Iran-Egypt relations. I actually ventured out here as a guest of the family in 2003 and I was like, “Whoa, here is Egypt, the middle ground! It’s got the liberalism of America, I can almost wear what I want, and it has American fast food restaurants, and thousands of years of history and culture.

So I really felt like Cairo was home to me then. That’s why I eventually ended up out here because I felt a calling of, “Here’s a country that finally understands me.” As a third culture kid I think I’m blessed in a way because I’m like a chameleon. When I’m with Iranians, I’m very Iranian. When I’m with Americans, I’m very American.

When I’m with Arabs my Iranian-ness comes out because it’s something familiar to them: the culture, the understanding, and the mannerisms. I feel like I can get along with anyone because of this third culture.

Whitney: Do you think it’s important for the time being to focus on dialogue building between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in America? If so, do you have any tips on how people can go about building dialogue and tolerance in their communities?

I absolutely agree with you. I think it’s important now more than ever that Muslims and non-Muslims get together.

You know, a lot of people on social media are using that Holocaust poem, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The problem is that in this day and age a lot of people tend to think, “Well, if it’s not happening to me, then it’s not my problem.” Forget the Trump administration for a second. You would think we would be more sympathetic to one another, but I think as much as technology has been bridging people and bringing them together, I think it’s also disconnected them.

People will look at a picture of the Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, and think, “Oh, that looks like my child” or “He looks just like any other kid.” People will feel empathy, but at the same time they won’t feel empathy for the person down the street begging for a bite to eat.

You would think we would be more sympathetic to one another, but I think as much as technology has been bridging people and bringing them together, I think it’s also disconnected them.

I think right now with Donald Trump being president, he kind of brought out the worst in people. He didn’t cause it per se, it’s always been there. He only allowed it to be out in the open.

He makes people think it’s okay to be racist, when people used to keep their feelings to themselves. Some people did share it online, but now it’s out in full force and on public display. I think what people all around the world, not just in America, need to do is that rather than fear, try to understand things.

Fear comes from ignorance. If you go read a book or talk to somebody that might be non-Muslim or Muslim and try to understand each other, you might not agree on things, but you will realize you have the same needs and wants.

We’re all human at the end of the day and the best way to combat this is with education. It’s with putting yourself out there, it’s with taking a study abroad program, it’s volunteering, it’s reading a book or articles, it’s having a dialogue.

The more we talk about things, the better. I think a lot of the problem with American society is that we are sheltered. We think that talking politics at the dinner table is a taboo.

If there is one thing Donald Trump has done for Americans is waken them up from realizing we don’t all act and feel the same. We are a diverse society with various sentiments.

 Fear comes from ignorance. If you go read a book or talk to somebody that might be non-Muslim or Muslim and try to understand each other, you might not agree on things, but you will realize you have the same needs and wants.

People are angry, people are racist, people aren’t happy with the U.S. government, people want change–and I think we need to take that and do something with it. That’s how we improve America, through dialogue and change–not by instilling fear into the masses.

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