Conversation with U.S.-based Iranian Woman, PhD and International Geopolitical Expert
By Abolhassan Mokhtabad
Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush is the rare, perhaps only, Iranian woman I know of who has studied politics and international affairs professionally at the highest academic levels, at a most prestigious university in the field in the United States, and is a practitioner, commentator, author, and prolific writer in the field of political and geopolitical risk analysis.
She believes her greatest influence in life was the daily exposure to politics which was encouraged by her father and grandfathers, and uncles, many of whom worked in the foreign ministry of Iran since the institution was established in its modern form. Politics was part and parcel of family life.
I first learned about Dr. Keynoush when I read about a talk she gave at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco which is an important forum for the discussion of global affairs. Looking at the list of speakers before and after her (Leon Panetta, Francis Fukuyama, etc.) I realized I wanted to interview her. I recognized that I was faced with a very hardworking and active figure in the field of political theory and thought. But quite to my surprise, what was most striking about her when we met was her comfortably understated confidence, which can throw people off their balance, and appealing personal traits that make her every bit an Iranian woman.
Keynoush is an able analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. She has excellent political instincts on regional issues and Iran, a unique ability to grasp details, and very modern and relevant in her outlook on issues. She is the author of multiple articles that have appeared in The Guardian and CNN, has authored several articles for academic journals, is a frequent international speaker in academic conferences, and is also publishing a timely book on Saudi Arabia and Iran.
She also happens to be a former simultaneous interpreter to four of Iran’s presidents, having chosen the path in order to achieve her longer-term political goals. These presidents include Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and more recently Hassan Rouhani.
For obvious reasons, I wanted to sit down with her for a lengthy conversation. We met in San Francisco, where she resides, and enjoyed a nice lunch at a local Persian restaurant Here is a summary of our discussion:
Q: Tell me about when you were young, before starting your higher education.
A: I was born in Tehran, in a family where being involved in politics was a tradition. My great grandfather was a senior tax officer of the state who traveled across Iran to help regulate taxes, and my maternal and paternal grandfathers worked at the foreign ministry. My maternal grandfather chose to go on diplomatic missions to Iraq because of his religious beliefs, and used the occasion to frequently visit the shrines there which he felt was vital to his life. Through him, my family regularly traveled across the Arab world during breaks. My father also worked at the foreign ministry, and because of his diplomatic missions, I spent my childhood abroad in Britain and in Germany, and later in Pakistan. We also spent some time in Tajikistan when it first gained independence. I remember from a young age through when I was eight, that my paternal grandfather would also frequently take me to the foreign ministry when I spent the summers in Iran, and allow me to join in his meetings with Iran’s ambassadors. Occasionally, I even accompanied him with my grandmother on his missions abroad to inspect the financial records of Iran’s embassies prior to the 1979 revolution.
Q: What was your grandfather’s name?
A: Ebrahim Keynoush. His colleagues referred to him as the real foreign minister, because he held the strings to the entire budget of the foreign ministry and Iran’s embassies abroad.
Q: You said you lived in the UK?
A: Yes, and at the time the Shah gave an interview in English to the BBC that I watched, around the time I was 8. It became the seed in my mind from which my passion for politics and international affairs grew. I decided then to work in a field which would allow me to speak about politics with the world, just as he did.
Q: Were you in Iran when the revolution happened?
A: We lived in Germany at the time, where revolutionary students imprisoned my father in the embassy for three days, but decided he was an empathetic and nice man, and released him and his collages without harm. But unlike many other Iranian diplomats, we took the fateful and difficult decision to return to Iran, confident that we’d be alright. It wasn’t easy afterwards, not at least in the first two years when the foreign ministry was purged, and we faced many financial difficulties. But luckily my father and grandfather had many well wishers from among the old ranks of the foreign ministry who vouched for them and their integrity, and that kept us safe. It was in those crucial years that I became even more exposed to heated political debates in my grandfather’s house where family and old colleagues gathered in solidarity given the trying times that faced us and Iran after the revolution and when the Iran-Iraq War started.
Q: What role did your family or your father play in the shaping of your political thought?
A: It was a very influential role. I learned from my father to always observe political events and international affairs in an impartial manner and from outside. And this was coming from a man and a family who lost a great deal of a lot. Our lives were overturned by the revolution.
Q: Were you in Iran during the war?
A: Yes. One of the great things I did at that time, not having much else to do except to observe the tragedy surrounding us, was to read and to satisfy my curiosity about the history of Iran and the world. I read every book that was available to me by the age of 13 on the history of ancient Persia, the Constitutional Revolution, the lives and biographies of its leaders and politicians including Mossadegh and Amir Kabir. I also remember reading a book on Napoleon which fascinated me. At the same time, I would go out a lot with my father and spend time with my grandfather. We only talked about Iran and world politics, and they described and analyzed for me the events that were happening. My grandfather’s house was in Amiriyeh, a hub of political life in Tehran and where many of the traditional religious classes of society lived. He always had a big family and a large group of expelled or forcefully retired foreign ministry diplomats around him and I spent most of my time in those circles. There was always political debates going on in every corner with the younger generation of my family too as each tried to find new political identities, so our habitat was truly all about politics.
Q: What conclusion did you reach by reading these books and growing up in this environment?
A: That I should not spend my time working on domestic politics in Iran, as it often led to disappointment and frustration. This line of argument I discovered was consistent in the lives of those Iranian politicians whom I also read, and this was the final turning point at which I decided to focus my career on international affairs. I went to Tufts University when I came to the States, and attended one of the oldest and most prestigious schools of international law and diplomacy in the world.
Q: Did you return to Iran after your education in the U.S.?
A: No, not permanently. But I worked in Iran for 8 years prior, and I was an associate professor at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran teaching English literature and translation before I came to America. My grandfather passed away while I was still teaching in Iran. It was I think in 1994 but not sure, and I remember the night before he asked me to stay with him, which I could not because I had a class to teach early next day. When I heard that he passed away the next morning, I regretted not spending that night with him.
Q: Given your family background, it seems that it was never an issue or concern to be a woman and be engaged in politics. But I have to ask, to what extent did your family attach importance to a woman’s presence in politics or in international politics, given this old belief in Iran that girls should not be involved in politics?
A: There was never a deliberate or direct importance given in my family to the subject of women in politics; at the same time, there was never such a discussion that a girl should not get involved in politics. I was raised in a family that loved having girls, compared to some other Iranian families I knew that wanted boys. And I spent a great deal of time with my father and my grandfather. They nurtured my mind.
Q: What are the attractions of political work for a woman? What do you think are the differences between a woman’s versus a man’s viewpoint about politics? Is it possible to make politics gender-specific and talk about female and male politics?
A: Politics is very attractive, at least to me it is very much so, but why? I may not have a precise answer to give, Perhaps one reason is that it is always up-to-date, and the quick unfolding of events and their relation to power which everyone wants a taste of at some level. But I suspect that politics at a broad level is not about male versus female politics. I think politics is about the management of power. Throughout history there have been women who have reached the heights of political careers, or if not, been every effective in managing politics behind the scenes, and/or in defining their political fates. But there have been very few, and the active participation of men in political management often does not leave very much room for women. I was one of those few women who had the opportunity to feel what it was like to work in that setting, and I earned a lot of respect from men for being there. I could feel it when I engaged in political discussions and debates.
Q: In between your talks, you said that politics is not about being a man or a woman. So do you believe that a woman does not see politics and power differently than a man?
A: That is not what I have said. Quite the opposite, I believe there are fundamental differences between their viewpoints and political narratives. In my view, one of the reasons why we face such big hurdles in the world is because women’s viewpoint is often missing in political discussions and narratives. Because there are not enough women working in the field of politics, the management of world affairs suffers in my view. This is while women’s viewpoint is used to run and manage a successful household, so you want their critical views to be sufficiently respected in the political sphere.
Q: What is your view about making politics gender-specific?
A: I may not have a convincing answer to give. Because in politics a woman must face and deal with the same political calculations that a man must face and handle.
Q: But throughout history, we have women who made a unique mark in politics, and reached the heights of a political career, such as Thatcher?
A: Yes, but Lady Thatcher was called the Iron Lady. And during the Falklands war with Argentina, when she sent British troops there, there were men around her who did not want a war. Taken from this perspective, I don’t think we can make the case that decisionmaking on issues such as war is gender biased. Such decisions depend on the experiences and disposition of people and the conditions which they face.
Q: In your view, if women and men had equal opportunities in politics, which would be more successful in their careers?
A: I still think that the issue should not be viewed from a gender perspective alone. The success of men and women is based on conditions, and whoever also works harder has a better chance of success. But to share with you my own experience, I had to work very hard to get to where I am, and maybe if I were a man, I may have not have needed to work as hard to prove myself to myself, if you know what I mean. For this reason, I am used to being a hard worker, and now that more than 20 years have passed since I started my career, I realize I need not have pressured myself so much. At the same time, many men supported my hard work and career.
Q: Name several successful women in politics, and the reasons for their success.
A: I have not read the biographies of women politicians to know what the reasons for their success are. But among these women, I have observed Nancy Pelosi and Hilary Clinton and believe they are very hardworking and active women who have reached the heights of their political careers. At the international level, I have met several women including the Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg and the former president of Latvia Vaira Vike-Frieberga. The Norwegian prime minister said she reached a peak in her career by becoming involved in politics at the national level and made her way up working on issues she cared about. When I thought about her political career, I felt sorry for myself and my fate given that I come from a country where such a path including joining political parties was not readily available to us when I lived in Iran. The former president of Latvia has a PhD and was an academic who taught in Canada, and was in addition an eloquent speaker. With these two credentials and hard work she was able to quickly reach the heights of her political career.
Q: Who were your role models at work, and why?
A: I have not followed any particular model, or role model, believing that every individual has specific life circumstances that may not apply to another individual, and which shape them in the unique forms they are.
Q: If you had the chance to look back, would you still chose this career path or chose another career or field of study?
A: I would have definitely chosen the same path. But I have always thought that if I pursued an artistic path in life, I may have wanted to be a singer. I have a deep love for traditional Persian music, and traditional singers both male and female. My favorite artists are Ghamar, Delkash, and Banan whose voice I love very much.
Q: What opportunities does being in the U.S. give a woman that Europe cannot give?
A: I refrain from comparing places, whether here with Europe or anywhere else. But I can say that in the U.S. you find great opportunities. The universities here are like a city given they are large universes in their own right. So a person’s horizons expand in these settings. In this respect, I feel indebted to America for expanding my horizons and granting me a sensibility that I definitely would not have had the wide opportunity to acquire had I lived in any other part of the world. It was here in America that I reached the impartiality needed to observe and analyze political developments correctly. It was here that I was able to obtain the necessary flexibility of view to reach a stable point in my own outlook on world affairs. It was here that my political thoughts and views nurtured and matured.
Q: Why? What does America have that is so special?
A: In America you find a multitude of political views comfortably interacting with each other and collaborating. In addition, the university environments in the U.S. allow individuals to nurture their intellectual capacities. I remember when I entered Tufts University, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, there were no other Iranian women studying in this field at the school. I felt strange being there, but the Americans and especially American university professors quickly put me at ease. They have this very positive trait of respecting and helping as much as they can a hardworking person when they meet one so his/her talents and intellectual capacities flourish. I received a very handsome scholarship from Fletcher along the way which also enabled me to comfortably pursue my studies and obtain a PhD, which may not have been available in many other academic institutions. Along with that, you enjoy the highest quality of scientific studies that give precision to one’s academic pursuits. In this regard, I believe America stands first in the world.
Q: You are the unique woman who has an outstanding track record of interpreting for four of Iran’s presidents in the past two decades. How did you study two languages to be able to work in this field where precision, accuracy, clearness of mind and ability to capture every spoken and unspoken nuance is a necessity? What books did you study in English and Farsi to get you to achieve this high level of accomplishment?
A: I grew up with two native/near native languages, Farsi and English, since childhood which helped with being a translator and an interpreter, especially simultaneous interpretation which is extremely hard. One has to live in the two countries that you speak the language of and interpret, in order to truly appreciate and understand the subtle and precise linguistic traits that each possesses, otherwise you will have a handicap in the pronunciation and comprehension of may complex words and modes of speech, not to mention the important cultural nuances that emerge in speech. In addition, I think having almost native command of two languages is a requirement of the job. Before obtaining my master’s and PhD in international law and diplomacy here in the U.S., I obtained a master’s degree in applied linguistics in Iran and was a PhD candidate in the same field. I also learned the skills of translation, which was part of my master’s studies, and self-trained as well in the field from a young age.
A: When did you decide that you wanted to be a simultaneous interpreter? How did you work to get there?
Q: I was 14 when I decided to be a simultaneous interpreter as a way to get a foot in the world of politics and diplomacy, the doors of which were closed to women in Iran at the time. So I started listening to the BBC radio broadcast in Iran every evening for almost seven years, and simultaneously interpreting the broadcast for myself in the quiet corner of my room. My obsession with the task reached a point where my mother decided to unplug the radio and TV in the house just to stop me from repeating everything I heard in English. It was funny! I taught the same skills to my students in Iran when I became an associate professor of English translation and literature at the Azad University. They loved it. In addition, I encouraged them to read the daily news in English to be familiar with developments and the technical terms involved, taught English literature, and studied Persian poetry in my spare time including works by Saadi, Rumi, and Parvin Etesami.
Q: Given that you have spent most of your recent life in the U.S., can I ask if you happen to have any favorite Persian poets?
A: Sohrab Sepehri, Rumi, Hafez, and Parvin.
Q: Can you summarize how you viewed the four Iranian presidents for whom you interpreted”
A: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani seemed to me quite intelligent, a patient person, and he came closer to being a statesman than any other president in Iran. Mohammad Khatami had a positive and friendly demeanor, and enjoyed having good conversations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was hard working, and as hard working as he was, he attached equal importance to his own views. He preferred to take on all the work himself, and did not like people if they happened not to think like him. President Rouhani is interested in delegating tasks, whereas Mahmoud Ahmadinejad preferred to do the tasks himself.
Q: What do you think about Senses Cultural, now that you are briefly familiar with our mission? Do you have any recommendations for us?
A: Senses Clutural is an active and energetic institution. I have met its founder, Tata Monfared several times, and she is determined and interested in her work. I think it’s great that you run both an English and Farsi website, and promote health awareness especially for autistic children. I think with this energy level and persistent efforts, you will experience wider success. I would recommend doing more work on human and environmental health issues, as in the field of arts, which I know is also part of your mission. I think there is plenty to do in these areas that has not been done yet. I wish you every success.