Avoiding the Translation Trap

To understand Iran’s behavior, look to the original sources      

As the Trump administration reviewed its Iran policy in August 2017, Iranian officials made statements that, as they were reported in Western media outlets, seemed to question the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

First, in response to the possibility of new US sanctions against Iran, President Hassan Rouhani reportedly threatened to resume components of his country’s nuclear program curtailed by the JCPOA. A few days later, it was reported that Aliakbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, had claimed Iran could acquire a nuclear weapon in just five days if it wanted to.

Yet neither of those reports proved to be accurate, and both were the result of mistranslations that effectively put words into the Iranian leaders’ mouths. The bigger problem, however, was that despite their inaccuracy both reports quickly became part of the debate in Washington over the JCPOA.

These are only the latest examples of mischaracterization of Iranian official statements regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the JCPOA. Indeed, mistranslations and misrepresentation of Iranian statements on its nuclear and security policies have long been a problem for scholars and policymakers alike. And that’s when Tehran’s perceptions are even reflected in the literature. We tried to tackle this systemic shortcoming in our article “What the Iran-Iraq War Tells Us about the Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal,” published in the latest issue of International Security.

Our article relies heavily on Iranian primary sources, including the extensive literature on the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) produced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); books and articles written by Iranian officials, such as Rouhani’s memoir of his time as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during the first round of negotiations in 2003-05; official statements from Iranian leaders; and interviews with high-ranking Iranian officials and members of the nuclear negotiating team, such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi.

The vast majority of these sources have escaped, almost completely, scholarly attention in the United States. This is because they come with their own set of challenges.

First, discovering the existence of these sources is itself difficult, given they are hardly referenced in the existing literature. Second, they are not widely available outside of Iran. Partial collections of IRGC publications, including some of the ones on the Iran-Iraq War we consulted, are available at the Library of Congress. Others can be found online. Third, most of these sources, including Rouhani’s memoir, have not been translated into English and so are available only in Persian. Further, the language, style, and format of many of these publications make deciphering them challenging, even for Persian speakers.

Beyond the challenges inherent to assessing Persian publications and the lack of access to Iranian officials, there are other reasons scholars have seldom considered these sources. Many discount them outright. Analysts often assert that because they reflect the official views of the regime they should be seen as nothing more than propaganda and should therefore not be used to inform academic analyses.

To be sure, these sources are minefields where truth and myth are often intertwined, but they illustrate Iran’s views of key events and of itself. They therefore provide much-needed context and insight into Tehran’s strategic outlook. In addition, directly consulting Iranian sources (with the language skills required to do so) helps scholars avoid often incomplete or inaccurate translations.

When assessing these sources, scholars must exercise prudence and judgement, contrasting official accounts of specific events with other primary and secondary sources. Sensitive security issues, such as Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, are particularly challenging in this regard, as official statements seldom match accounts presented by international organizations and informed analysts. For example, Iranian sources indicate that in its pursuit of a nuclear program, Tehran only sought self-reliance in energy. But as we argue in our article, the Iran-Iraq War led the regime to seek self-reliance in defense—hence, it was practicing nuclear hedging, a policy that would allow it to have a nuclear energy program available for weaponization if needed. 

Despite decades of journalism and scholarship on Iranian security matters, existing analyses continue to be hindered by a reliance on flawed and incomplete secondary sources on Tehran’s intentions and behavior. The commentary on the Iran-Iraq War, one of the most significant events in contemporary Iranian history, and on the country’s nuclear program, perhaps the foremost security challenge tied to Iran, are important examples of these shortcomings. Ignoring primary sources in Persian leaves a major gap in the literature on Iranian security policies. 

Ariane M. Tabatabai is the Director of Curriculum and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. 
More posts by Ariane Tabatabai
Annie Tracy Samuel is an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
More posts by Annie Tracy Samuel