The past three decades of history between the United States and Iran could be seen as one long communications breakdown. After Islamic revolutionaries toppled the US-backed Shah in 1979 and took Americans hostage, all formal channels of communication were cut.
If a message must be delivered, it is passed by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, or announced publicly through the press. Unlike the Cold War, which featured a special red telephone for the American president to speak directly to his Soviet counterpart, the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program relies on back channels and circuitous go-betweens.
For years, Banafshesh Keynoush stood in the middle of this game of diplomatic telephone, working as an interpreter for Iranian leaders whenever they traveled to the United States. Keynoush literally served as the English voice of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as for his predecessor and rival, Mohammad Khatami, when they attended an annual meeting of world leaders at the United Nations in New York. She translated Ahmadinejad’s defiant speeches to the English-speaking world. When he insisted that Iran is not trying to build a nuclear bomb — and when US journalists challenged him — her simultaneous interpreting was the only reason that either side understood the other at all.
Her life story is testament to Iran’s tumultuous history. When the revolution happened, she was 9, living in Europe with her diplomat father, who made the difficult choice to move the family back to Iran. She finished high school amid the shelling and devastation of the Iran-Iraq war, and taught herself to be an interpreter by listening to English radio broadcasts, before leaving her country for the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Now that talk of a military confrontation with Iran has flooded the US airwaves, Keynoush describes what it was like to be the messenger between one proud country and another — and how much got lost in translation. She spoke to Ideas by phone from her home in California, where she now works as a consultant.
IDEAS: How did you come to the United States?
KEYNOUSH: I was 27, a PhD candidate in Iran, teaching English literature and translation. I wanted to study international relations, but there was only one master’s program in Iran. It only took men. So I wrote a letter to the Tufts Fletcher School of Diplomacy. I didn’t have their address. I just put “Fletcher School, Boston.” It got there, and they called me.
IDEAS: How did you start interpreting for Iranian presidents at the UN?
KEYNOUSH: I got a call from the Iranian mission at the UN. They said, “There is a new reformist president named Mohammad Khatami. He is searching for a good interpreter. Would you be willing?” Getting to know Khatami was a pleasure. He really liked to establish a personal connection with everyone. I don’t think he really enjoyed politics. He is a philosopher and an intellectual.
IDEAS: What was it like to work for Ahmadinejad?
KEYNOUSH: I was struck by how young he was. There was an interview with an American reporter. When she got up to say goodbye, she said, “You are a tough cookie.” I didn’t translate it. I thought he wouldn’t notice. But he turned to me and said, “What did she say?” So I explained. He was unfazed. Once, we were sitting in a hotel in New York waiting for a interview and the lights kept going on and off. Nobody could fix it. Ahmadinejad said, “Is this what they call American technology? They should come and learn about technology from Iranians.”
IDEAS: What was it like to be the voice of Ahmadinejad in America?
KEYNOUSH: Khatami had made some compromises on Iran’s nuclear program, and people complained that Iran didn’t get enough in exchange. So Ahmedinejad came in saying, “We are not going to compromise.” His personality took it to the far extreme. He is unrepentant. That comes from his belief in Mahdism. They see the Mahdi [a redeemer Muslims believe will return to earth before Judgment Day] as a symbol of the return of justice to earth. They aspire to become that messenger of justice. In the process, they may ignore a lot of important things, such as their own injustices.
Ahmadinejad came in with his own worldview that there is a paradigm of injustice against Iran, imposed by the West, especially the United States. Over time, he broadened that view and thought this injustice exists for all developing countries and that Iran has to rectify it. Any politician can make up a worldview, but I think he really believes it.
IDEAS: How widespread is that feeling on injustice among Iranians?
KEYNOUSH: Quite widespread. It goes back to the early 1900s, when the British had almost exclusive control over Iran’s oil industry. The Iranians set up one of the first parliaments in the Middle East. They decided, under Prime Minister Mohamad Mossadeq, to nationalize the oil in 1951. The decision was really radical at that time. A series of embargos were imposed and a lot of hardship came as a result. There was a coup carried out with British and American help that brought the Shah to power. Thirty years later, the consequence of that was the Iranian revolution.
IDEAS: Will Iran ever agree to stop enriching uranium, which the United States believes is to create fuel for a nuclear weapon?
KEYNOUSH: Right now Iranians see enrichment as a tool that will enable them to achieve strategic parity in negotiation. They are not going to give it up. But I don’t think the idea of nuclear weapons is popular in Iran. They are proud of their science and want to put it to good use. But it’s not like the average Iranian wakes up every day and thinks about nuclear technology.
IDEAS: Is there hope for a peaceful resolution?
KEYNOUSH: Ahmadinejad was the president who took the message of trying to reach out to Americans farthest. He tried with his own way. He wrote a letter to President Bush. If he had gotten an opening with America, it would have taken him far back home. But the message just got continuously lost. He couldn’t understand that the way he delivered his messages was not a way that Americans could hear it. A lot of Iranians who haven’t been exposed to the West don’t know how to talk to the West. They don’t understand how to speak to the American audience. I think he got disappointed. The Iranians say what they want to say, and the Americans hear what they want to hear. It’s an art to rise above that.
IDEAS: You also interpreted for Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Prize-winning human rights activist from Iran.
KEYNOUSH: She was a mother figure for me, a woman to look up to. I discovered working with her that human rights activists have a great sense of humor. The nature of her work is so serious that without humor, you can’t get by. Her message was that there was nothing inherent in Islamic law that prevents it from upholding democratic values.
IDEAS: Why did you retire from interpreting? Was it because of the Iranian government’s crackdown on reformers in 2009?
KEYNOUSH: I was in Hiroshima in 2010 with Shirin Ebadi at a peace conference, and it was pretty heavy. She turned to me and said, “It’s become hard for me to accept that you are working with me and with Ahmadinejad.” I had always asked her to tell me if it ever reached that stage. She had never said it before. I decided not to interpret for either one. I have always tried to rise above the politics and deliver the message so that the Americans can understand what Iranians are saying. But this country of mine, Iran, has become so divided. I don’t think I belong to this work anymore.Farah Stockman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Globe. E-mail email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.