Professor Atash Nikahd sat in his cramped office in the top floor of the foreign studies department of Columbia University. The office had a desk, two chairs, and a variety of computers and computer parts. The rest of the space was strewn with old books, newspapers and magazines in a variety of languages including Farsi, Hebrew, French and German, all of which the professor spoke fluently.
Despite the tight quarters, there was a second man in the office. He name was Jack Kelly, and he was what as known in political circles as a “smooth talker”. Despite having no formal title, he was the man the President sent in whenever a particularly delicate situation needed attention.
Kelly leaned forward and began, “Professor, there is some concern about a paper you are preparing for possible publication.”
“Please, call me Atash. Yes I have been working on this for almost two years. I have proof, absolute proof that the Foreign Minister of Iran has been working with other high members of the government to steal ancient Persian artifacts from the museums and sell them outside the country to private collectors. They have amassed millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts while robbing the Iranian people of their heritage.”
“Those are very strong allegations professor.”
“They are not allegations! I have shipping documents, photos of the artwork, even copies of bank statements. When I present the paper at the conference it will be a sensation!”
Despite the professor’s agitated tone, Kelly’s voice remained calm and soothing. “Well you see Atash, that sensation is exactly what the President is concerned about. Our negotiations with Iran are at a delicate stage. We are on the verge of full diplomatic relations, and Iran’s Foreign Minister has been very helpful to us. The President is very impressed with your other work Atash, but as a favor to him he would like you not to present this paper.”
“The President of the United States knows who I am?”
“Of course, Atash. In fact he read your History Middle Eastern Kings while he was in college,” lied Kelly smoothly.
The professor was flattered but very upset. “But you don’t understand. The academic world is cut throat. I am not even a full professor. Columbia could drop me at any time. I have devoted the last two years of my life to this. I spent all my personal savings for travel and research. And of course, I had to pay bribes every step of the way to get the documents I needed. I was gone from the university so much that Columbia has threatened to fire me. Even my wife left me. She called me an obsessed fanatic. If I don’t publish the results I am ruined, finished.” Atash was visibly shaking at the end of his speech. It looked like he was on the verge of tears. Atash continued to talk about his problems for another half an hour.
Kelly sat quietly and did not interrupt. The term “smooth talker” was not accurate. Kelly’s real skill lay in his ability to listen, really hear what someone was trying to say. And what he heard from Atash Nikahd was a man in late middle age, desperate for respect. No wife, no tenure, no money and no publications.
When Atash was finished venting, Kelly leaned forward and began to talk. After he was done the two men shook hands and Kelly left Atash alone in the small office.
The conference came three weeks later but Atash did not present a paper. He sat alone in the back of the lecture hall, listening to lesser minds and even some graduate students make presentations and receive applause. Negotiations with Iran continued and four months later it was announced that full diplomatic relations would resume between the United States and Iran.
It was a warm spring day when the Presidential motorcade pulled up to the front of Columbia University at 116th Street & Broadway. Standing on the sidewalk to greet the President was Professor Atash Nikhad wearing a brand new beautifully tailored dark suit. It was the kind of suit he would be expected to wear as the new United States Ambassador to Iran.
Atash and the President shook hands while the press and TV crews crowded around for pictures. In the back of the crowd, unnoticed by most, Atash saw Jack Kelly. Their eyes met, and Kelly gave Atash a nod and smiled.