The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Lisa Daftari is an award-winning freelance journalist who has made a career out of following the political and social scene in Iran.
Daftari grew up in Paramus, where she attended the JCC of Paramus with her parents, Sion and Simin Daftari, and her three siblings, Bobby, Danny, and Diana.
She first gained national attention in 2006, when, as a graduate student in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California, she presented a documentary she made on an Iranian political youth movement to a subcommittee of Congress. After the presentation she went on to write a report for the Pentagon on Iranian youth movements and since then has appeared on Voice of America and PBS. Last year she became a regular guest contributor on Iran for Fox News Channel.
Daftari spoke with The Jewish Standard from her Los Angeles home about her career, her life, and Iran.
Jewish Standard: Had you always planned on going into journalism?
Daftari: I pretty much had my mind set on going to law school. After I graduated it was a combination of things. [The events of] 9/11 had a huge impact on influencing me and inspiring me to become a journalist. At the time we had family friends who unfortunately passed away. It was a hard time for the entire community and anybody living in the New York metro area. Watching the coverage and watching the stories of the aftermath, I felt so many important stories were missing from the coverage – stories that would put into context why we were being attacked, stories that would put into context who these fundamentalist groups are.
It left Americans very scared and vulnerable. I think at that point I realized there was so much more out there. Journalism combined a lot of what I liked about going into law – the analytical reasoning and the writing, putting into perspective for others important stories that will affect their lives.
J.S.: How did your career shift to a focus on the Middle East and Iran?
Daftari: I was a Middle Eastern studies major. I was doing a lot of independent study on Iran and the Middle East. My family’s from Iran so it was always an area of interest for me – how a revolution 30 years ago changed the entire fate of my community and my family, for an Iranian girl to be raised in Paramus, N.J. I always had an interest, and when I started researching the Middle East and Iran it wasn’t the hot topic at the time, but it was definitely a hot topic for me. You could scrape away the layers and get to all these questions about why things are a certain way right now.
J.S.: Why has the Middle East become such a hot topic?
Daftari: It is the most sensitive region of the world. We’ll always need people to put into context – and [provide] perspective [on] – what’s going on over there, whether it’s Israel and the Palestinians or Iran or Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 9/11, Americans want to know more about this area. For me it’s been very exciting to be able to tell the stories of the Middle Eastern people and to share their experience.
J.S.: How often are you in touch with people on the ground in Iran?
Daftari: It depends on what’s going on. Sometimes every day. Sometimes I set up different interviews with different people of specific interests – someone who just recently got out of jail or recently experienced something with the government. Something like that or an artist who’s doing something unique, or a rock star. I did an interview with a girl who’s a heavy metal artist in Iran.
It depends on what I’m working on or whether I just want to keep in touch with what people are doing over there on a daily basis.
And when the post-election demonstrations broke out, it was more often multiple times per day, just keeping up with all the things going on and staying on top of all the excitement and all the developments.
J.S.: The post-election protests in Iran have been out of the headlines for some time now. Is the opposition still protesting at the same levels as after the elections? What is happening that we’re not seeing?
Daftari: On a daily basis you see small groups of Iranians gather, whether it’s on a college campus, outside a government building, on rooftops at night.
This is very similar to what happened right before the revolution in ’79. What the American media and American public have to understand is sometimes these movements are very gradual. Nothing is done overnight.
The Iranian people realize if they’re out every day in large-scale demonstrations it doesn’t have the same effect. They’re coming out during holidays, especially holidays that signify something for the Islamic republic.
They wait for those types of opportunities in order to get their voices heard and in order to get the media coverage as well.
J.S.: Do you think that the American public is still as interested in what’s happening on the ground in Iran or has the focus shifted to the nuclear standoff?
Daftari: It’s definitely shifted to the nuclear standoff. In terms of national security, we have to be worried about the nuclear standoff. If you’re part of the Jewish community you’re going to be worried about Israel. If you’re living in America you’re going to be worried. I think every single person on Earth should be worried. It’s not just an America thing or an Israel thing.
Of course, that’s going to overshadow human rights violations in Iran. But at the same time, because of the nuclear issue, people are going to be more cognizant of the human rights issues that people are protesting about. It’s a clear indication of what type of government we’re dealing with. It’s the Islamic republic on one hand and Iran on the other.
And now for the first time in 30 years the American public is becoming aware of this difference. I think that’s the one big thing the Iranian population and the demonstrators were successful in doing in June: bringing [the difference] to the attention of the international community and more so the Americans.
The Iranian people came out and they came on the news. The coverage was pretty good – international coverage is always lacking in this country and it’s gotten much, much better. The Iran coverage was pretty good. It raised awareness and curiosity in the international community.
J.S.: What is the public perception of what is happening in Iran?
Daftari: The American public – you have to give them more credit. Because of the whole nuclear issue…. It’s not the first time we’re seeing a tyrant government that’s so different from its people. We’ve seen it in so many different circumstances and in so many different countries.
The American people are finally seeing that discrepancy and maybe feeling a little bit more for the Iranian people because their government is so rogue and so in the hard line. I think the American people have begun to see the differences there.
J.S.: What kind of impact has the nuclear standoff had on the opposition in Iran? Is there a danger of the country uniting in the face of a perceived “us vs. them” mentality?
Daftari: If you ask an Iranian plain and simple, “Do you think your country should have nuclear arms?,” it’s a very, very touchy subject. It almost comes out to a patriotic issue: “Why shouldn’t our country have nuclear arms?” Just like “Why shouldn’t our country have a great education system?” Our country should have this and our country should have that.
The difference in this case is the Iranian people don’t consider their government an Iranian government. They consider it an Islamic government that doesn’t have their best interests in mind.
The Iranian people don’t really trust their government to have these weapons. In this internal strife, why wouldn’t the government use their nuclear weapons on their own people? They hang their people, they beat and torture their people just for coming out in demonstration, so what would stop them from using nuclear weapons on their own people?
To say that the nuclear arms issue is going to unite the Iranian people is a little out there. It’s not going to happen and it’s not going to be a simple black-and-white answer. I don’t think the Iranian people are that naÃ¯ve or have that much faith in their government.
J.S.: What can we do as Americans to support the people of Iran?
Daftari: Educating ourselves is probably the best thing we can do at this point – asking for Iran stories in the news and keeping up with what’s going on there. There’s an Iranian saying, “I didn’t ask for your help, but I didn’t want you to get in my way either.” It’s a very loose translation but what it means is the Iranian people weren’t asking our government or our people to help them in the outbreak of the post-election demonstrations but at the same time they didn’t want us to stand in the way. They feel like sometimes the American government has a way of just taking the attention to where they want.
With regards to the government, I think they’d want to see more support and with regards to the American people they’d want to see the same support. Knowing that the Iranian Americans and mainstream Americans are all standing behind them and wishing them well in their endeavor.
J.S.: How are the Iranian relationships with Hezbollah and Hamas viewed by the Iranian people?
Daftari: It used to be in ’79 and up to about this past year it was always “Death to America,” “Death to Israel.”
A lot of the slogans that we’re seeing on the street during the post-elections say something along the lines of, “We don’t care about Palestinians, we don’t care about Gaza. We are purely Iranian and we care about the Iranian people.”
I think the Iranian people are finally turning on their government – in the sense that they’re calling them out on this: “Why are we worried about the Palestinians? Why are we worried about helping the people in Gaza? Why are we giving money to these terrorists? Why are we giving money to children in the Palestinian territories when we should be supporting poor children in our own country?”
This government has gone so far and has become so radicalized that it’s pushing the Iranian people in the opposite direction and making them so secular, and so Iranian in their views and less Islamic in their views. And so patriotic in the sense that they want things for their own country and not for other countries.
The Palestinian issue has always been something the Islamic republic emphasized. Finally the Iranians are basically questioning that: “Why should we stand with the Palestinians? We should stand with ourselves. We have a rich culture that dates back thousands of years” – and they’re romanticizing that.
J.S.: Would the people want to re-establish relations with Israel?
Daftari: We’re a bit away from that. I think the people want to establish good ties with their government first. Everything is local for the Iranian people right now. They don’t care about America. They don’t care about Israel. They don’t care about the Palestinians. They just really want their human rights. They want unemployment to go down – it’s so high in that country. They want pollution to go down. They want jobs. They want to be able to get a divorce. Wives want to be able to complain against their husbands if they’re being beaten.
They want rights.
Israel and the United States are much farther off; they’re not on their minds as much as we think. The Iranian people think Israel’s going to help them get to their goals; they’re all for it. They think America’s going to help them; they’re all for it too. The Iranian people have become less polarized.
J.S.: Is the West using the right strategy with Iran?
Daftari: From the time President Obama was campaigning, he was very much set on negotiating with Iran. To give him credit, he has definitely mentioned Iran a number of times, but there hasn’t been as much action.
I think we haven’t seen the results. He’s using negotiating measures that don’t work and he’s repeating measures that don’t work. We’ve had three rounds of weak sanctions. It’s not going to work.
Unless we get crippling, crippling sanctions, serious sanctions – gasoline sanctions – that are going to choke off this regime, then we’re not going to get anywhere. Everybody pretty much agrees with that. If we can get China on board – which is probably a very slim to zero chance – then we’ll be on the right track to choking off this regime. Otherwise, we’re just embarrassing ourselves and making empty offers and gestures to a president and a government that’s so radicalized and so set in – they pretty much pride themselves in being outlandish. Every time President Obama is going to extend a hand, they’re going to ridicule [the gesture], and it’s just going to be another media fiasco.
Sanctions are definitely what we need right now.
J.S.: If we push for crippling sanctions, couldn’t that push the people into an extremist corner?
Daftari: That argument could be made, but at this point the Iranian people are coming out on those streets and watching their young children being shot at and watching their children hanged because of a simple demonstration. I think [imposing] sanctions – an economic pinch to an already suffering economy – is not going to be the worst option. I think the Iranian people are willing to brave that if it means they’re going to have the freedoms that they’ve been yearning for.
J.S.: What do you see happening if Israel or the United States moves forward with a military option?
Daftari: It’s going to be awful. It’s basically going to be utter chaos in the Middle East. That would obviously be the last, last, last option. If you’re worried about hurting the Iranian people with sanctions, the military option is the most unfair option for the Iranian people. It’s going to be the innocent Iranians that are going to be losing their lives.
Everything at this point should be targeted toward this regime. I think that’s a unanimous point of view in the case of Iran. I think everything – whether it’s sanctions, whether it’s negotiations, any sort of choke or pinch – should be targeted toward this regime and we should basically stay away from hurting the people of Iran as much as we can.
J.S.: What is your sense of the situation from the Iranian communities within America?
Daftari: The Iranians are very much politically cynical people. When the demonstrations broke out, it wasn’t just political, it was also highly emotional.
A lot of Iranians [in America] were just staying by the phone, by the computer, by the television, waiting for reports, waiting to find out where their loved ones were.
Here in Los Angeles, which has such a large enclave of Iranians, you couldn’t even step into a coffee shop without hearing multiple conversations about what’s going on and whether it was in the general scheme or talking about specific cousins and friends who went out to the protests. There was a huge solidarity. There were demonstrations here at the Federal Building and at the United Nations in New York.
It’s as if a 30-year-old pot had finally boiled over. Iranians of all different denominations and religions came together because it was a purely secular and Iranian patriotic fight for democracy and for human rights. It was a movement to go back to the Iranian culture that’s so fundamental in all Iranian families.
Since then, with the nuclear issue, people have become more cynical and a little bit more questioning of where America stands, where Europe stands. I think Iranians are always concerned about what the allies want because that’s what’s going to happen. They feel as though the ’79 revolution was organized not by Iranians but by foreign powers. They’re applying that same formula to what’s going on right now.
A lot of Iranians believe nothing’s going to happen unless the foreign powers would want something to change.
J.S.: How optimistic are you about the situation?
Daftari: To be pessimistic would be wrong. We’ve seen movements that begin even slower and on a less steady course and ultimately reach some sort of development.
There’s such a discrepancy between [the government and] the people, who have become so secularized and modernized. One of the biggest problems for them is that Yahoo and Google were shut down during the demonstrations. They blog, they use Twitter. This is not a people who want to be represented by this type of government.
On the other hand, you have a government that’s embezzling millions and millions of dollars and is not going to go anywhere anytime soon without the proper pressure.
We have to be optimistic in the case of Iran. We have to for the sake of the Iranians and for the sake of the entire world.
We’re all at risk here. We’re not the ones suffering the daily consequences of the regime.
If and when Iran does become a nuclear power – and that’s one to maximum two years – we’re all going to be at risk. I don’t think we should wait till that point to be dealing with the situation.
I think the Iranian predicament is something the Iranian people and the entire world have to shoulder at this point. We have to be optimistic because something will happen.
J.S.: What brought your parents to the U.S.?
Daftari: My father came to New York to study about 45 years ago. He came before the revolution. He went back to Iran and met my mother – it was a year before the revolution. They got married and came to the States in hopes of basically organizing my father’s life and moving back to Iran. So my mother basically came out of Iran with about two suitcases. And then the revolution happened and they were forced to stay; they couldn’t go back.
At that point, my grandparents and uncles were all still in Iran. By 1980 they were all in New York.
J.S.: What role did Iran play for you growing up?
Daftari: My mother was very nostalgic about Iran, from the way she would buy corn on the cob on the street to her school memories and her friends and how everybody was so warm and hospitable and kind. It left us with this idea of a utopian society that I would give anything to visit.
I remember thinking [Iranian revolutionary leader] Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini was the only reason I was living in New Jersey instead of Iran, living the life my mother had always described to me. I remember watching TV when Ayatollah Khomeini passed away. I looked at my mother and said, “Does that mean we’re moving back to Iran?” I remember that, thinking he was the reason we were here and if things were better we’d be living in Iran.
It was always looked upon so positively; everybody was so kind and warm.
J.S.: What was it like growing up in a predominantly Ashkenazi community?
Daftari: I was pretty much raised with the Ashkenazi culture. Sephardi/Mizrachi culture was what I had at home. I didn’t think there was a divide, really. I felt I had a bonus at home, this bedazzled version of Judaism where we can have rice on Passover.
The wonderful thing about Jews is no matter where anyone’s from you can go to Israel and have Friday night dinner and just feel at home in anyone’s home. It’s a wonderful uniting characteristic about Judaism. I always felt it was an additional side of Judaism I got to explore.
J.S.: Have you traveled to Iran at all?
Daftari: No. I’ve traveled to the Middle East, to Israel and Turkey. I travel under my own name so I don’t think it’d be safe for me to travel to Iran.
J.S.: Would you eventually like to go?
Daftari: Absolutely. If I knew that it was safe I would go at any point. My mother always tells me she wouldn’t want me to go now because of all the wonderful pictures she’s painted in my mind about what Iran is. She wants them to stay that way and not [have me] see what it’s become. Pre-revolution Iran was competing [globally] – now it’s definitely not as it used to be.
J.S.: Thank for sharing your ideas with Jewish Standard readers.