Holly Dagres

Education: Master’s degree in political science from the American University in Cairo | Bachelor's degree in political science and French from the University of California Career so far: Iran analyst, U.S. Department of State | Contributing editor, Cairo Review of Global Affairs | Contributor, Al Jazeera, Al-Monitor, Atlantic Council, Buzzfeed, Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, and Voice of America Find Holly online: Personal website | The Iranist | Twitter | Facebook Exclusive interview, 9 February 2017

Education: Master’s degree in political science from the American University in Cairo | Bachelor's degree in political science and French from the University of California

Career so far: Iran analyst, U.S. Department of State | Contributing editor, Cairo Review of Global Affairs | Contributor, Al JazeeraAl-MonitorAtlantic Council, BuzzfeedForeign Policy, the Huffington Post, and Voice of America

Find Holly online: Personal website | The Iranist | Twitter Facebook

Exclusive interview, 9 February 2017

Holly Dagres | The Iranist

Whitney Buchanan (The Middle East Collective): 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 as misunderstood in the Arab World as it is in America. Given my upbringing in Tehran and being Iranian-American, I decided to focus on Iran.

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. I thought it would be useful to have a newsletter that would curate all of this.

I’ve been running The Iranist for about a year and a half. 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 Goulet (Women in Foreign Policy): How do you find reliable news sources to use in your newsletter?

I depend on a host of news agencies including Reuters, AP, New York Times, Washington Post, as well as websites that put out solid Middle East and Iran articles, like Al-Monitor.

Curating takes up a lot of time. Every day I copy-paste links into a Word document. At the end of the week, I look at what the top headlines were. Then I decide what I’m going to cover before it goes out each Friday. I really have to pay attention to the news or else I would lose grasp of what was happening in the past week.

Whitney: What are main challenges you face in your work?

Making sure translations--from Iranian commanders or the Supreme Leader--are accurate. Sometimes things get lost in translation.

For instance, years ago, someone quoted former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map. 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: What is your funding for The Iranist like?

The Iranist is pro bono. I would like some money to come in, but currently it’s a labor of love. It gives me the opportunity to talk about all things on Iran. It’s my weekly homework, so I don’t mind doing it.

It's nice to see more and more people subscribing. It’s exciting and that makes me feel good and I 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. I am starting to do interviews. I think that will bring more clicks and make people aware of my brand.

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

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. His aggressive Tweets 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 since before he took office. The House Speaker Paul Ryan also says he doesn’t like the Iran Deal, but it’s what we have. Russia has said, “Iran is our friend, we have relations and don’t know why Trump is so keen on getting rid of this Iran Deal.” This is very important because Trump has this love affair with Putin. Putin’s own government is defending the Iran Deal so that is going to be complicated for Trump.

The Iran Deal is hard to tear up since it was made with five other world powers: Russia, China, France, Germany, the UK, the European Union, and the United States. It is complicated than just saying, “we are going to get rid of this Iran Deal.” We 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.

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 don’t consider myself a journalist because I do analysis and commentary. My job is to give my opinion. I Tweet what I want, I post on Facebook. I do write articles but most of them are opinion pieces. If any journalist tweets opinion, he/she could easily get fired, so he/she has to be objective.

I can say things more liberally, but I do have to be careful 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. 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. 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. 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”. 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 started learning about why things were the way they were in Iran. One of my earliest eye-opening conversations was probably six months into living in Tehran. A family friend was visiting from California. 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, “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.

As I started studying Iranian history, I realized Iranian women traditionally did cover up. This entire idea of hijab or non-hijab is a new thing. When Reza Pahlavi, the Shah’s father, came to power in the 1920’s, he abolished the veil and he faced a lot of opposition in society, especially from the conservatives and the mullahs.  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 inspired by Turkey’s Kamal Mustafa Ataturk. Iran pushed many Turkish reforms on its own people, except it backfired 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.

Many people don’t understand that the veil, especially when it comes to Iran, was as much of a hindrance as it was a blessing for some women. Many Iranian families were very conservative and if it weren’t for the hijab, their daughters would’ve taken on traditional roles and become housewives. Because they were wearing the veil, a lot of these women, who would have stayed home everyday, started getting an education.

Around the Revolution there was probably 50-60% literacy, but by the early 21st century, Iran’s literacy rate had doubled to 98.9%. The veil did a lot more good than bad 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.

Lucie: You are a 3rd culture kid, you grew up partly in the U.S. and partly in Iran. Where do you feel you belong?

Home is wherever I live. My journey has been interesting. I’m in Cairo right now because as an Iranian-American, I've always felt very proud of both sides, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in L.A. or 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 the Egyptian chargé d'affaires to Tehran’s daughter. I went to Cairo as a guest of the family in 2003 and I was realized Egypt was 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. 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 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 to focus on dialogue-building between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in America? 

It’s important now more than ever that Muslims and non-Muslims get together. 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 out for me

In this day and age many people tend to think, “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 as much as technology has been bringing people together,  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 they won’t feel empathy for the person down the street begging for a bite to eat. Donald Trump 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.

People all around the world, not just in America, need to try to understand things. Fear comes from ignorance. When you 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, it’s having a dialogue. The more we talk about things, the better. The problem with American society is that we are sheltered. We think that talking politics at the dinner table is a taboo. Donald Trump has waken up Americans from realizing we don’t all act and feel the same. We are a diverse society with various sentiments. People are angry, people are racist, people aren’t happy with the U.S. government, people want change--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.