How Mistranslation Could Threaten the Iran Deal

We don’t have to take Tehran at its word. But we should at least know what the leadership is saying.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) talks to journalist from a balcony of the Palais Coburg hotel where the Iran nuclear talks were being held in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2015.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) talks to journalist from a balcony of the Palais Coburg hotel where the Iran nuclear talks were being held in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2015. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Sometimes the words that matter most in foreign policy are the ones we get wrong. As the Trump administration openly ponders withdrawing from the Iran deal, notwithstanding reports of Iran’s compliance from the UN’s nuclear watchdog, some might believe his case was bolstered by inflammatory remarks from Iran’s own leaders concerning their intentions. Except that in many cases, those remarks were mistranslated, and the accompanying outcry was often misplaced.

We shouldn’t take Iran at its word that it’s complying with the deal—that’s why the deal provides for inspections and monitoring. But we should at least know what those words are and what they mean before they fill headlines, let alone inform policy. One of us worked for the last secretary of state, from his days in the Senate when he helped open the Obama administration’s Oman backchannel to Iran, through his first years of delicate diplomacy at Foggy Bottom building a direct relationship with an Iranian Foreign Minister for the first time in three decades. The other has spent years in Iran and studied the regime’s security thinking and policies, including considerable time deciphering often opaque Iranian statements.

As summer began, one think tank’s report alleged that “Iran says it has initiated mass production of advanced centrifuges,” and declared “Iran could be in material breach of the nuclear deal.” But this damning allegation was entirely based on mistranslation. A senior analyst for the International Crisis Group and native Persian speaker discovered that Iranian officials only said Iran had the know-how to mass-produce advanced centrifuges, hardly a secret or a surprise to anyone, not that it was doing so. On Memorial Day, that think tank quietly issued a revised report to “reflect a corrected mistranslation in the Iranian print media.

Next, in mid-August, news reports suggested that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had warned his parliament—on live television—that Iran was prepared to “return … within hours—to conditions [in its nuclear program] more advanced than before the start of negotiations.” It took a day for a more accurate translation to indicate that Rouhani had instead argued, “new U.S. officials should know that failed experience of sanctions and coercion brought their previous governments to the negotiating table,” and that if the agreement dissolved “we will return to a much more advanced situation than at the time of the start of the talks.” In other words: Sanctions didn’t solve the nuclear issue, only negotiations did; and if the United States rips up the nuclear agreement, Iran has options too. These might reasonably be interpreted as old facts, not new threats. Indeed, the truly striking thing about the remarks was the fact that Rouhani—even to a parliament populated by plenty of hard-liners—doubled down on his commitment to compromise and diplomacy rather than to escalation and confrontation. He didn’t tell the hardliners what they wanted to hear. To an audience that at times doubts Rouhani, he made it clear that the nuclear agreement isn’t Iran’s only option, it is “Iran’s preference.”

This week nuclear deal opponents coalesced around an alleged threat by Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear sector, that “we are able to resume 20 percent enrichment in at most five days.The Independent initially reported that this meant the Iranians could have a nuclear weapon within five days of withdrawing from the agreement. Very few reports bothered to include his contemporaneous comment that “definitely we are not interested in such a thing happening. We have not achieved the deal easily to let it go easily. We are committed to the deal, and we are loyal to it.” Lost in the surrounding firestorm was the fact that even if the nuclear agreement disintegrated, Iran could not in “five days” return to a robust nuclear program. The Iran deal ensured this, because it required the elimination of 97 percent of Iran’s uranium stockpile; the destruction of the Arak reactor’s core, blocking the production of weapons-grade plutonium; the removal of two-thirds of centrifuges; and and a halt to all uranium enrichment at the underground Fordow site. Salehi knows that—which is why it’s logical to conclude he was parroting Rouhani’s previous argument.

Does all of this mistranslation and misinterpretation matter? History tells us it certainly can. Historians still debate whether a mistranslation of the Japanese word “mokusatsu” at the Potsdam Conference as World War II put America on a road of no return to drop the atomic bomb. The Allies pressed Japan for an unconditional surrender, to which the Japanese delegation responded using the term ''mokusatsu,'' to “reserve comment.” Truman was misinformed that the word meant “ignore.” We will never know what might have happened had a translator conveyed, correctly, that Japan might not have intended to “ignore” the Allies and close the door on negotiation after all, but rather “reserved comment” to keep it cracked open for future discussion.

Cold Warriors invoked Nikita Khruschev’s threat “we will bury you” as justification for arms races, military interventions, and even quagmires. We will never know what might’ve happened if we had relied on a more accurate and less menacing translation of the Soviet premier’s words: “We will outlast you.” And in America’s troubled history with Iran, policy-makers and historians still ask “what if” in 1953, as America studied the words of Prime Minister Mossadegh, it had chosen to see a nationalist rather than a budding Marxist. Would America have still fomented a CIA coup which still haunts the relationship? Could the brutality of the Shah, the 1979 Revolution, and the “hostage crisis” have been avoided? We’ll never know.

But the risk that mistranslation and misinterpretation could escalate into something more dangerous than mistrust is greatest when two sides don't talk to each other at all. The last administration built a channel for communicating with Iran, first quietly through Oman and then regularly and reliably between the U.S. secretary of state and Iran's foreign minister. It proved indispensable in concluding the nuclear deal, securing the release of a number of Americans held in Iran, and in defusing a potentially explosive situation when American sailors were captured by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Seven months later, the new secretary of state has not yet met with or spoken with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. It’s a marked contrast to the way the rest of the world engages with Iran, as this week even arch enemies and regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they would soon exchange diplomatic visits.

In our view, it would be a mistake to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement —especially at a time when the United States and its allies are using sanctions to try and drive North Korea, a rogue state that actually has the very nuclear weapons Iran has for now sworn off, to the negotiating table. President Trump is on record that he wants to find Iran noncompliant with the deal, notwithstanding the advice of his own Cabinet or the findings of the IAEA that Iran is in compliance. He has yet to make his case to the public about why this would be in America’s interests. The diplomats and technocrats who gave the world the Iran nuclear agreement spent thousands of hours and hundreds of days laboring over each word. In this critical time, a lot can hinge on something as mundane as mistranslation—and a lot can be lost through simple misunderstanding.