Fletcher Features

Fletcher Alum 'Interprets' Iran


Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush’s (MALD 99 and PhD 07) professional background is one that most could not imagine. At first glance, you may not guess that a woman with such a petite frame and kind demeanor held the position of interpreter for three powerful, and often controversial, Iranian presidents: Akbar Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Keynoush’s political interactions have spanned the spectrum, as well: she’s worked with the Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi. And she’s found herself in awkward situations where ideals of her country’s hardline religious leaders collided with the realities of high quality translation. (Once, a group of clerics objected to having a female voice as interpreter. But after they heard her speak, she received handwritten notes thanking her).

Keynoush wasn’t sure where Fletcher was located when she first heard about the school in the late 1990s in Tehran. The daughter of a diplomat, she wanted to study international relations, but Iran’s only such program was restricted to men. It seemed as through the answer came to her in 1996, when she found a pamphlet from Harvard Law School that mentioned joint programs with Fletcher. She decided that’s where she wanted to go, so she wrote a letter, addressed the envelope” “The Fletcher School, Boston,” and dropped it in the Iranian mail. Three months later, she got a call from the admissions office, and in January 1997, she arrived at Fletcher.

“Fletcher, the community, it gives its soul to its students,” she said. “It’s been my family from the day I arrived.”

Keynoush recently returned to The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (April 19) to share her unique insights on Iranian politics, gained from learning at Fletcher to take into account all perspectives at all times.

Iran is a more stable and more forward-looking nation than the West gives it credit for, and oversimplified perceptions about its internal politics make it far more difficult to craft sensible policy toward Tehran, Keynoush noted. She cautioned against thinking that Iran was on the verge of instability or massive upheaval.

“What we hear about Iran isn’t a full reflection of what is happening in the country,” she told students and faculty. “It’s hard work to analyze Iran … it’s a complex state.”

She said the belligerent rhetoric between Washington and Tehran is unfortunate, and she lamented the lack of nuanced understanding of Iran’s political system, particularly with two rounds of legislative elections scheduled this year and a presidential election scheduled for next year. (Parliamentary by-elections held May 4 in fact dealt a blow to political allies of Ahmadinejad, in a potential foreshadowing of the presidential vote).

“Iran has always defined itself on its own terms,” she said.

Keynoush said contrary to outsider perceptions, Iran wants a stable Middle East as long as its security interests are taken into account. “Tehran’s leaders don’t like uncertainty or turmoil in the region any more than any other country,” she says, “but at the same time, they are very experienced knowing how to survive in chaos.”

Keynoush left official interpreting in 2010, and now lives in California working as a consultant for the private sector specializing in Iranian and Middle Eastern affairs.

Keynoush credits Fletcher for helping her career, and said she has taken her experience with her throughout her work and travels. Professor Andrew Hess, she notes, was a father figure and constant supporter. She was touched by an invitation to have Thanksgiving dinner at another professor’s house when she arrived in the States. And the coursework in public international law she took with Professor Alfred Rubin has been instrumental in informing her research through her career.

“Fletcher gives you the latitude to get expertise and then define it, shape it,” she says. “It’s latitude to do what you want, and then once you’re on the path, Fletcher will take you a long way.”

--- Mike Eckel, MALD Candidate (’13)