A writer friend once told me that a dictionary he had consulted explained the
word “charm” as “an indefinable quality giving pleasure.” Surely, he remarked
with amusement, “a dictionary exists to define concepts, and not ‘indefine’
them?” I saw his point. But I saw the dictionary’s point too – because while we
have all at some time in our lives been swayed by another’s personal charisma,
we might, if put on the spot, be hard put to list the exact ingredients of the
charm recipe; and then the precise balance of those ingredients.
gleaned words like “captivation,” “fascination,” “seductiveness,” “enchantment”
and “magnetism” from various dictionaries – none of them particularly successful
attempts at getting to the root of personal charm.
personal quality that attracts people to you and makes them like you” is a
slightly better try than the one that amused my friend, though it too reveals
little about what charm actually is.
Does it lie in a particular manner
of smiling or moving or speaking, in the projection of sincerity, empathy or
affability; in a pleasing way, perhaps, of engaging with one’s environment – or
in a combination of these? Charm may be hard to pin down, but reminded of US
Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous opinion in a 1964 pornography
case, one is tempted to adopt his line of reasoning and declare that charm is
hard to define, but “I know it when I see it.”
ONE DISMAYING but
important truth is that charm, while appearing to reflect the entire
personality, is in reality more like an attractive outer garment worn over
everything else. And precisely because charm is so seductive, we need to remind
ourselves that knowledge of a person’s character and behavior over time are
needed to ascertain whether sincerity and genuinely honest intentions really do
lie underneath that enchanting cover.
Often they do, and such
personalities are a boon and delight to those lucky enough to come in contact
with them. But let me offer the remark of a friend who, when he saw what I was
writing about, commented that the association with the word “charm” that sprang
most readily to his mind was “scoundrel.”
Indeed, when I put the phrase
to Google, I came up with 80,700 hits – many of them, no doubt, describing con
men (and probably women) who employed their considerable personal attributes to
swindle others out of their money and possessions.
THE OXFORD English
Dictionary explains “turn on the charm” as using “one’s ability to please in a
calculated way so as to influence someone or to obtain something.”
offers, moreover, this definition of the phrase “charm offensive”: “a campaign
of flattery, friendliness and cajolement designed to achieve the support or
agreement of others.” (According to Wikipedia, the first recorded use of this
phrase was in October 1956, in the California newspaper The Fresno Bee
Republican.) A Google search for Hassan Rouhani + charm offensive produced
127,000 hits, suggesting that the Iranian president knows a thing or two about
using his personal charisma to elicit support and/or agreement from
His September 24 speech to the UN General Assembly concluded with
words carefully chosen to resonate with Western listeners.
is the predicament of our time,” he proclaimed. “Human society should be
elevated from that of mere tolerance to collective collaboration.
all over the world are tired of war, violence and extremism.... Warmongers are
bent on extinguishing all hope, but hope for change for the better is a
widespread concept.... Hope is the greatest gift.”
Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive has already changed the global dynamics over
Iran’s nuclear pursuit to Tehran’s advantage,” wrote Lawrence J. Haas, senior
fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, in an October 3 report in The
International Business Times titled “Rouhani’s Charm Offensive Already Paying
off for Tehran,” “with the West easing its pressure and Israel now positioned as
a stubborn outlier. Also to Tehran’s benefit, Rouhani’s efforts have opened a
clearer fissure between Washington and Jerusalem.
“As if to illustrate
the US-Israeli split,” Haas went on, “the Obama-backing New York Times chastised
[Binyamin] Netanyahu for his ‘sarcasm’ and ‘combative words,’ saying it would be
‘disastrous’ if he and his congressional allies ‘were so blinded by distrust of
Iran that they exaggerate the threat, block President Obama from taking
advantage of new diplomatic openings and sabotage the best chance to establish a
new relationship since the 1979 Iranian revolution sent American-Iranian
relations into the deep freeze.’” IT IS amazing – shocking, really – to see
charm’s power to effect a fundamental shift in the international community’s
view of a menacing regime. This singular power easily connects to another,
related meaning of the word “charm” as “something believed to have magic powers”
(Merriam- Webster). It all made me wonder whether Rouhani makes a point of
listening to Nina Simone’s “I’ll Put a Spell on You” whenever he prepares to
talk to the West.
The October 8 issue of Commentary magazine also
referenced Rouhani’s personal appeal in an opinion piece headlined “Iran’s False
Charm Offensive Already Paying Off.” In it, Jonathan S. Tobin observed just how
much the Iranian president’s affable persona and intimations of moderation had
already achieved, yet how they were “unlikely to bear fruit with actual progress
on the nuclear issue” given that “Rouhani’s own positions on the key nuclear
issue are little different from those of [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, despite
the attempts of Westerners to convince themselves otherwise.”
Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg (October 7), who said that Rouhani “is proud of
the work he did to advance his country’s nuclear program – and also of his
efforts to stymie Western attempts to stop that work.”
Rouhani’s past role in tricking the West on nuclear negotiations, something he
boasted about earlier this year.
Rouhani, who was Iran’s chief nuclear
negotiator from 2003 to 2005, has admitted that deception allowed the regime to
further advance its nuclear weapons program.
But one leader’s
manipulative charm trumps many opposing leaders’ memories, it
“...The deceptive nature of Rouhani’s moderation that was on
display at the UN still has not penetrated the consciousness of the Obama
administration or its Western allies even though these facts are not exactly a
secret,” continued Tobin.
“Yet few appear to be listening to such
warnings, or those of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who again
that any deal with Iran must ensure the end of Iran’s uranium
enrichment as well its plutonium program....
“Western negotiators have
been offering Iran deals which will enable them to keep their nuclear program
for years, but Tehran has always preferred to preserve its ability to build a
weapon rather than to accept [these deals] and thus end economic sanctions. The
Rouhani charm offensive sets up the West for a repeat of this farce even as
Khamenei is making it clear that he will never give up the regime’s nuclear
“The bottom line,” wrote Tobin, “is that while the West
negotiates with itself in order to strengthen Iranian ‘moderates’ against the
supposed ‘hardliners,’ the regime buys itself more time to get closer to its
Though Khamenei and Rouhani may appear to be at
cross purposes, they are working together to advance their common nuclear agenda.
The only question is how long it will take President Obama to catch
OF COURSE, Rouhani has two significant realities working for him:
that the persona he presents is the antithesis of his coarse, embarrassing,
Holocaust-denying, wipe-Israel-offthe map predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and
that the US administration and the European community’s overarching, fervent
wish is to believe that his smooth and soothing words mean what they
For the present, then, and to coin a phrase, Rouhani’s tactics –
backed by his boss, Iran’s supreme leader – are working like a charm.