Hello my fabulous chai drinkers! How is everyone doing? Welcome to episode 9 of season three of the show, coming to you from Washington, DC. I’m your host, Anushay Hossain.
When you hear the words “Iran nuclear deal” what are the images that come up in your mind? I think of men– mainly American and Iranian diplomats sitting across one another in the conference room of some major hotel in Vienna, Geneva, or New York.
But it’s an Iranian woman that many in the US have come to rely on when it comes to decoding diplomacy with Iran.
I am talking Negar Mortazavi!
Hello, my fabulous Chai drinkers, how’s everyone doing? Welcome to episode nine of Season Three of this show coming to you from Washington DC. I’m your host, Anushay Hossain. When you hear the words Iran Nuclear deal, what are the images that come up in your mind? I think of men, mainly American and Iranian diplomat sitting across one another in some conference room of some major Hotel in Vienna, Geneva or New York, but it’s an Iranian woman that many in the US have come to rely on when it comes to decoding diplomacy with Iran. I am talking about Negar Mortazavi, Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist and political analyst based in Washington, DC. She is a columnist for The Independent and host of The Iran Podcast. Martazavi has written for Foreign Policy Magazine, Politico and the Huffington Post. She’s a frequent commentator on Iranian affairs, and US foreign policy on MSNBC, BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN and more. Mortazavi worked as a TV presenter at Voice of America Persian, where she hosted a daily show that discussed current affairs with Iranians. In 2019, she led an investigative reporting project and later brought a lawsuit against the Department of State that exposed how a $1.5 million grant by the State Department to the quote “Iran Disinformation project” was used to smear human rights activists, journalists, and academics, many of whom were American citizens. In 2021, Marttazavi was featured in Forbes among 30 inspirational women who have made great achievements in various fields, and continue to break boundaries and work and life. And she is our guest today on Spilling Chai.
Salam and welcome to the show Negar we’re first of all, thank you so much for giving me the time to speak with you. I’m so excited.
Thank you for having me.
So you were born in Tehran, Iran, and then you went to school in Germany before immigrating to the US. Talk to me a little bit about your childhood, and what was it like to move from Iran to Germany?
Negar Mortazavi 2:22Skip to: 02:22
Well, it was been interesting. upbringing long time ago. I mean, I haven’t talked about that recently, ever. But I grew up. I was born after the Iranian Revolution, I grew up during the war, the air war with Iraq, I still have some memories of, you know, the war, culture surrounding us. And then towards the end of the war, eventually, the bombing of, of the city Tehran where we lived in and sirens and all of that, that’s, that’s one part of the growing up, which was very vivid as far as the memories. And then towards the end of the war, we temporarily relocated to Germany, which is where I went to school for a couple years, then went back to Iran and lived there for another number of years, until I moved to the United States in 2002. So it’s been an interesting journey, ups and downs, and definitely was very different. Especially when I immigrated and moved here as an adult and spin and interesting, but also challenging experience living here for the past two decades.
Wow. Well, you know, Iranian culture is so rich and so beautiful. But there are really some things that are difficult to translate. And as you know, I’m married to an Iranian. And I always, you know, give him some, some help, because he never explained to me what taarof was before we got married. So I want to ask you, and I had to figure it out on my own. And now that I understand it, how would you explain taarof to non-Iranians? Because it’s a very Iranian kind of concept, right?
It is. I mean, if I want to simplify it, I would because I think it’s also a very Eastern or traditional concept. I think there was this NPR episode one stat explained it very well. But if I want to simplify it, it’s a form of politeness. So you, you know, try to be polite or extra polite depending on who you ask sometimes even too polite to in various cultural situations and presenting a feeling or position which you don’t necessarily have my I’ve seen some people telling me it’s behavior. Critical or that at some point, maybe you’re even lying about your feelings, but it’s just, I see it in the bigger form as as a way of politeness, but a very extreme and sometimes hard or complicated to read, cultural practice that is there, it just comes very normal and to Iranians, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
It’s like extreme extreme politeness, right, because holiday holiday in Iranian culture is so important and Maimonides and your guests, so it’s like an extreme form of politeness, you don’t know whether to say yes or no to.
Negar Mortazavi 5:40Skip to: 05:40
It is and you know, if you are, so if you grow up in the culture, if you understand the context, it even varies from community to community, from city to city, if you’re in a big city, if you’re in a remote village, the nuances of that culture are also different. But one thing for example, my non Iranian friends are always shocked about when they traveled to Iran, or their first direct encounter with Taarof is they arrive at the airport, they get in the cab to go to their hotel, or whatever destination and when they try to get off, the cab driver tells them they don’t have to pay, it’s obviously a form of taarof because the cab driver wants to be paid. But it just goes on and on for so much that at some point, the non Iranian person also depending on their background, doesn’t know what to do. And this manifests and every, you know, aspects of Iranian life, it can happen even between members of a family, immediate members of a family. It’s not just the politeness that’s for strangers, or for guests, it can happen between siblings, it can even happen between spouses or parents and children. So it depending on where you are, what context it is, you know, it could mean being offered more food or eventually eating more food when you’re no not hungry anymore. It could mean not charging somebody money, it could mean paying for something that you haven’t use. It’s just a very complex web of, of different issues. But then there’s also the back and forth. And this is what I wanted to get out if you’re not a stranger to the culture, if you if you know the context, and if we are within, you don’t even just see the instances. So for example, let’s say fighting over who pays for a restaurant bill, it doesn’t it’s not it doesn’t always end up being the same person. So every time everyone pretends like they’re fighting, but eventually, if you look at it in a period of time, it would be a different person each time, everybody would take a turn. So in a way, it’s sort of, you know, balances out and it doesn’t mean that one person is taking the burden for everyone.
That is such an excellent explanation. That’s exactly what it’s like back home. I had an Iranian friend explain herself to me as Iranian passive aggressiveness. Which I thought was amazing. I think that’s harsh. Like how you explained it? That’s excellent. So um, you are you have been reporting as a woman and online for so long. How do you deal with online trolling? Because, you know, as a Bangladeshi journalist, a Bangladeshi American journalist, you know, when women like us have our feet and kind of two parts of the world at the same time. Sometimes I feel like the American trolling is so harsh. But then sometimes I feel like it’s really more harsh from my own people. So what is it been like for you as a woman online? Do you get worse trolling from Iranians or Americans?
Negar Mortazavi 8:51Skip to: 08:51
Well, I think trolling will political polarization is something that we witnessed across the world. I don’t want to say it’s only an American and are not Iranian and or Middle Eastern thing. And especially against journalists, it’s also something that we witnessed from the most powerful person in the world, Donald Trump all the way to just everyday citizens doing more of this practice. And I think with social media, people are, have been given more of a platform to do this kind of thing and to do it more public and to do it against strangers. And it’s it’s definitely turned into a phenomenon, a serious issue that different organizations, media analysts, journalists, activists are dealing with. When it comes to Iran, and you know, US Iran relations or US foreign policy towards the region, which is something I focus on. It’s unique because we’re dealing with a large number of state sponsored trolls and cyber armies that are literally receiving massive amounts of funding to do this kind of trolling. And a lot of times they’re doing it with anonymous accounts pretending like they’re everyday citizens and activists. It’s the funding comes from the Iranian government from the IRGC intelligence forces in Iran. It also comes from Iran’s rivals in the region, Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, even Israelis. And it’s also been from various political and interest groups in the United States. And at some point, and I don’t know, if you or your audience is familiar with the Iran disinfo. scandal two years ago, we found out that the State Department was also funding some of this trolling online.
Yeah. Wow. Yeah, it gets so complicated in the role of governments in America and abroad. I mean, a lot of people don’t, don’t take that into account. So you have been covering Iranian affairs and US Iran relations for over a decade. And I’m sure you know that an agreement to revive the nuclear deal with Iran appears, you know, possible as the United States and as partners are set to meet up in Vienna for the sixth round of talks with Iranian diplomats since April. How are you feeling about these talks? Do you have more hope under this administration?
Negar Mortazavi 11:18Skip to: 11:18
It’s interesting. We’re actually just talking about this with my colleague. I think I’m cautiously hopeful and optimistic. I think the talks are going somewhere. We obviously won’t know until the they’re finalized. And that’s the nature of diplomacy. A lot of it is happening behind closed doors on both sides that are very sort of tight lipped about what’s happening. But just to summarize it, the United States or the Biden administration wants Iran to go back to full compliance under the nuclear deal put more limits on its nuclear program, and the Iranians want a whole bunch of sanctions removed or eased, lifted, which were imposed on Iran after President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal. And I think the main disagreement seems as we’re hearing reports from Vienna, on what sanctions the US is willing to lift. Apparently, the Biden administration is not willing, or so far hasn’t been willing to list everything that the Iranians expect as far as sanctions and designations and also the sequence or the process of how the Iranian side would return to full compliance or the limitations on their nuclear program. But I think the talks have been constructive, they have been moving forward. And there’s a lot of hope from both sides. And also observers that Europeans are involved in this the Russians and the Chinese. We just were hoping that this would happen before Iran’s election, Presidential election, doesn’t seem like it will be finalized by then. But I’m, like I said, I’m cautiously optimistic, and I think they will reach an agreement sooner than later.
Fantastic. You work on such intense political complex regional issues. What do you do to unplug and unwind? Do you ever do that?
Negar Mortazavi 13:09Skip to: 13:09
That is, that is very interesting question. I don’t unplug as often as I should, or I want. I mean, it’s a difficult thing to do. But I also it’s, it’s necessary for me to be plugged in because I’m constantly dealing with these new cycles, especially when you’re close to a cycle. For example, as I said, the presidential election is happening this Friday, so I can unplug this week or the negotiations are happening in Vienna, it’s hard to unplug as the diplomats are talking but I one thing I’ve started to do is to not go to bed with my phone, which is which was a bad practice. I’m sure a lot of us have been guilty of that. I just literally turn off my phone and or silence it and put it in a different room. And that’s it. That’s one thing I do. I’ve been trying to cut down on social media after working hours because you know, there’s a lot of unnecessary stress and news that comes out you if you’re constantly plugged in, it’s hard to do, but I tried to do some of that and then just you know, try to not not check or be plugged in when I’m doing other activities. Like when I’m in the pool, or if I’m taking a walk or having a dinner with friends. It’s hard. I’m not saying I can do it 100% but I think just putting down your device, whatever it is, and not worrying about the world coming to an end while you’re having dinner is —
It’s very healthy. Yes, Twitter can be so toxic, but so it just pulls you in. Twitter. Yeah, Twitter is the war is very tricky. Like I feel like Instagram is like the happy place and Twitter’s like the scary place.
Negar Mortazavi 14:56Skip to: 14:56
Yeah. And you know, the other challenging thing is that And I’ve made I just want to be fair to people where my business is that Twitter has turned into such an essential part of our profession that I did media requests over Twitter message. So I have to constantly be on top of my messages, because there can be important professional, you know, work related things in there that need to be seen. And the breaking news and the news that break in front of your face. Yeah, exactly. And you know, being on top of an issue in a country, that’s eight and a half hours ahead of us. So when we try to go to sleep, or when we’re trying to unwind at the end of the night, on a Monday, for example, which is the beginning of the weekend, Tehran, that’s when things start happening in Iran. And it’s just difficult to follow that news cycle without being, you know, consumed by it. 24 hours.
Exactly. What a good word consumed. Okay, so last question. You are not, I mean, when was the last time you were back in Iran? And what do you miss the most about home? What do you miss the most about Iran?
Negar Mortazavi 16:03Skip to: 16:03
Well, January 2009, was the last trip I made to Iran. This is before the June 2009 presidential election, which was then followed by the green movement and the mass, you know, arrests of journalists crackdown on media, and then eventually a mass exodus of Iranian journalist, which was the biggest since the 1979 Revolution. A lot of people had to basically flee the country and move into exile. A lot of journalists had to basically become asylum seekers in different countries and go through a very difficult time. I was lucky, I didn’t have that I was already living in the US, I was established. But since then, I also haven’t been able to go back to Iran. I have an open case with the Revolutionary Guards intelligence force, who is the force that has been cracking down on media and journalists. And it’s just, you know, it’s a risk. I don’t know what would happen to me, if I go back to Iran, if I’m going to end up being the next Jason Rezaian, or the next, do all national getting 10 years in prison, or if I’m just gonna be interrogated at the airport, and, you know, have my password confiscated, I don’t know. But it’s just been a risk that I wasn’t willing to take. So since then, I’ve been living in forced exile. First of all, it’s very difficult to not be able to travel to your homeland, to your city where you grew up, or you went to school where a lot of my extended family lives. And then it’s also been challenging for my profession, because I’m covering a country that I can’t travel to, from a distance eight and a half hours ahead, like I said, but again, then this is a good aspect of internet and social media, I’ve been able to keep my connections with people on the ground, journalists, activists, friends and colleagues. And it just wouldn’t have been possible without, you know, internet and online access and social media and all of these other forms of communications and to be on top of things. In a country that’s miles and miles away from us.
What do you miss the most about home? Do you miss like gournay subzi unteren? Or what is the one thing that you miss the most of at home,
Negar Mortazavi 18:19Skip to: 18:19
but to be honest, I missed the Tarot for law. Oh, offering you things you may want to ask and you know, them just realizing it. I definitely miss the food and you know, you can get decent Persian food. We’re lucky both of us live in the DC, Maryland, Virginia area. One of the places we shouldn’t complain about Persian food as far as the Diaspora but you know, you still have to drive like half hour to get to a decent restaurant. They don’t necessarily have all the food on the menu every day. But if you live in Tehran, it’s just down the street. It’s your everyday access. I miss my extended family. I missed taking trips around Iran. You know, it’s a very big country. It has a very diverse climate, you can go skiing and you can and you know, swimming in the beach at the same time. I missed the mountains. I missed the sea. I missed a desert, a lot of the nature of the country and also the history. That’s one thing that’s been very different and sometimes difficult for me here in the US. When you talk about anything historical in this country at the most it’s maybe 200 years old. Yeah, it’s so young. Yeah, but if but I come from a place where history means 2000 plus so that lack of history and continuity and the civilization, the culture that comes with it, that’s been very different but sometimes I you know, I really miss that. Yeah, being married being both an exile and also in like sort of a new country. Which is a young country, which is the US, yeah.
And Americans cannot imagine the vastness or the richness of the Persian Empire; they cannot imagine their heads would explode.
Negar Mortazavi 20:12
Poetry Oh, I forgot this as part of the culture. A lot of people don’t realize the connection to poetry and I’m not just talking about reading poetry books, I’m talking about the cab driver literally reciting poetry back to you as a form of communication or commentary on politics. It’s just the everyday connection with that aspect of the culture, which is something I really miss in my everyday life and encounters.
Everyday verses of Rumi and Hafez is a part of Iranian culture. What is that? I’m gonna say it’s Shab-e-Yalda. I don’t think that’s what it is. When you read from Hafez’s poetry.
Negar Mortazavi 20:53
Yes, it’s definitely Shab-e-Yalda. The Winter Solstice is when you read poetry literally all night to the morning. There’s also poetry reading in the New Years for no rules, but Shab-e-Yalda is the night when you read poetry and recite poetry all night uniform.
So beautiful, was such a rich culture and so generous of you to give us your time Nygaard. Thank you so much Negar. It was great finally speaking with you and I’ll talk to you soon. Same here. Take care, Khuda hafiz.
What is it like to be a Middle Eastern woman online in 2021 reporting on complex diplomatic negotiations between the US and Iran. I’ll give you a taste. One of the first responses that Negar and I got to this episode as we promoted it on Twitter was, quote, fuck you both. makes you think about how thick your skin has to be and the realness of everyday sexism, and misogyny. If you enjoyed this episode of Spilling Chai. Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and until next time, let’s keep spilling the chai!