An Interview with Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush: Her Life as an Author, Interpreter, and Diplomat

PAAIA recently interviewed Banafsheh Keynoush about her new book, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes? Drawing on her interactions with high-level Saudi and Iranian politicians, the book offers unique insight into the tumultuous Saudi-Iranian relationship, challenges the mainstream fallacy of inevitable sectarian conflict, and argues that the relationship can be fixed through increased diplomacy.

Dr. Keynoush is a foreign affairs scholar and writer who has worked with the European Commission, the U.S.-Iran Claims Tribunal, four of Iran’s presidents, and with hundreds of international events, conferences, dual track diplomatic meetings, including with the United Nations. 

PAAIA: Why did you decide to write a book on Saudi-Iranian relations?
KEYNOUSH: I became interested in Iran’s regional foreign policy during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980-1988, having lost family and friends, and being forced to flee our home dozens of times in the course of the war.  Yet, even back then I knew that it was not Iraq I was fascinated with, but Saudi Arabia. I knew very little about the kingdom and it seemed odd that the accounts of it that I received from Iranian pilgrims or politicians focused only on narrow events or experiences. I began wondering about the kingdom frequently, thinking about what its people, and political and geographic landscape were like. Then in November 2001, I had the opportunity to meet with Iran’s then reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and Saudi Crown Prince, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. I decided then to write about the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 
PAAIA: How do you think your perspective as an Iranian and an American sheds light on the complex relationships in the Persian Gulf region?
KEYNOUSH: I witnessed Iran’s political evolution firsthand after the 1979 Islamic revolution, because I lived in the country, studied and worked there, and then became a chief simultaneous interpreter to four of its presidents. Coupled with my education and life in the United States in later years, I was able to develop an objectively detached understanding of Iran’s regional foreign policy. I believe both experiences were necessary in order to write the book.
PAAIA: Growing up in Iran, how did you become interested in pursuing a career in diplomacy?
KEYNOUSH: My grandfathers, uncles and father served in the Iranian foreign ministry, and I was raised in diplomatic circles from a young age. My father encouraged having political debates on foreign policy issues with me. At the age of 14, I decided to become an international diplomat, a choice that determined every career move that I have made since. I have had detours along the way, teaching in academia, being an international geopolitical consultant, and a writer, which have enriched my experiences in a very satisfactory manner. But my passion remains working in the field of foreign policy and international politics.
PAAIA: How has your work as a language interpreter impacted your views on the US-Iran relations?
KEYNOUSH: I have had direct exposure to Iran’s leadership for over two decades, and to the country’s tumultuous history for longer periods of time. My perspective is different from people who view the US-Iran relations from outside. My background has taught me to develop empathy for Iranians with diverse political views, many of which I disagree with, but still feel the need to understand in order to help build lasting bridges between people. In my mind, empathy is a key component of being a good interpreter as well, because without it you cannot interpret a culture, its political messages, or maladies and joys. In short, I have learned to understand that political differences should not be treated as a deal breaker, but a momentum to engage in real diplomacy.
PAAIA: Who has been your favorite person to interpret for/what speech or conference has been the most memorable and exciting?
KEYNOUSH: Iran’s Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi was a woman I looked up to, and  worked with for seven years traveling the globe after she won the prize in 2003. I also enjoyed the challenge of interpreting for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because I was anxious to help the world understand what Iran was about despite his presidency.
It is hard to pick a most memorable conference or event given that I have participated in thousands for two decades. I loved it all because I did not consider being an interpreter work but a passionate hobby. 
But I have been engaged in memorable conversations. I spent one afternoon interpreting the private spiritual and political discussions between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Shirin Ebadi, in Hiroshima. I spent a month in Cartagena, Colombia as an interpreter for a UN meeting, and found interactions with local people about their views on Islam invigorating. Another memorable discussion happened when I interpreted for Mohammad Khatami and Fidel Castro. I enjoyed the challenge of interpreting for Castro whom I thought was enigmatic. 
PAAIA: Given the  breakthrough in nuclear talks, what is your outlook on the future of US-Iran relations and regional peace in the Persian Gulf?
KEYNOUSH: I have to be hopeful that things will turn for the better, as they have been quite bad for very long. But I have worked in politics for too long, and so I do not get too excited about landmark political events. I know that politics can move forward slowly. I also see a fair degree of continuity in Iran’s regional foreign policy despite new presidents or the nuclear deal. I believe Iran is very challenged and somewhat helpless in the region, and that will make its US ties volatile as well, which in my mind, is more reason for the United States and Iran’s Arab neighbors to continue to engage with Iran diplomatically. 
PAAIA: Do you have any advice for Iranian American women who want to pursue a career in international affairs and diplomacy?
KEYNOUSH: Yes, if I may say, I believe that women who engage in this field, and especially women like us with Iranian backgrounds, should be prepared to break heels in a man’s world. I found that challenge thrilling because honestly I never looked at myself as a woman, but a human being anxious to make her own mark on the world. As a result, I think I have always been authentic about my voice as woman too, because I have never felt the need to compare myself with a man, but only with the higher goal of what it means to be human. That outlook, I think, has earned me a great deal of respect across the board in the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran. But I had to work at least ten times harder than people around me, to be noticed, valued, and above all to prove myself to myself. So I feel fortunate to have been a woman in this field, because it forced me to bring the best of me out. But challenges persist. Even here in the United States, I have had groups ask for my help to simultaneously interpret a live political press conference, only to put a male voice over for broadcasting later. I just laugh.
Dr. Keynoush’s book is available for Purchase Here

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