Rouhani’s Moment of Truth









Foreign Affairs, 19 January 2016,

How the Coming Assembly of Experts Vote Could Shape Iran’s Future

Despite the obvious constraints, elections in Iran—whether for the Assembly of Experts, the presidency, the parliament, or even the regional municipalities—can still tell observers a lot. And they also matter; they can be the difference between the slow wearing down of the hardliners’ outsized control or the further consolidation of power in their hands.

The coming February 26 elections for the Assembly of Experts are particularly consequential. First, the elderly Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s poor health raises the likelihood of a succession sometime within the next eight years (the tenure of the next assembly). Second, given that the assembly also brings together many of the regime’s leading clerical grandees, one of its members may be selected to take his place as Iran’s next Supreme Leader. Third, these elections have been scheduled and later delayed to coincide with the parliamentary elections, potentially boosting voter turnout. Understanding the institution and its politics sheds some light on how the impending succession will take shape.


The assembly came into being in 1979 as the body tasked with drafting the Islamic Republic’s constitution. This document raised the uniquely Iranian interpretation of Velayat-e Faghih or Guardianship of the Jurisconsult above other forms of civic and secular governance. Even though the assembly served out its purpose with the constitutional referendum in December that year, it was subsequently repurposed for the selection of a successor for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the republic. In this latter capacity, it has held four terms since 1983.

Despite the checks and balances theoretically invested in the assembly to restrain the leader, critics call it a rubber-stamp institution that defers to the person it is supposed to supervise. Furthermore, candidates angling for a place in the assembly are subject to vetting by the Guardian Council, whose 12 members are either directly or indirectly picked by the Supreme Leader. In other words, Khamenei ultimately decides the fate of his own oversight committee. But when it comes time to choose the next supreme leader, the alignment of preferences among the assembly’s 88 members (recently increased from 86 to accommodate the relatively new Alborz province) will actually have bite.

That is why the election of assembly members should be closely watched. Elections are comprised of direct votes per province for eight-year terms. The chairs of the assembly are elected internally by secret ballot for two-year tenures. For nearly a quarter of a century between1983–2007, Ali Meshkini, a key regime figure and a hardline ayatollah of Azeri descent chaired the assembly. His death in 2007 effectively opened the way for the first true internal competition for the body’s top job. In what ensued, the more moderate pragmatic Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had been speaker of parliament, president, longtime head of the country’s influential Expediency Council, and a confidante of Khomeini until his death in 1989, famously trumped the ultraconservative head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.

In 2011—two rounds of leadership balloting later—Rafsanjani ceded power to a visibly infirm Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, a less hardline traditional conservative whom Khamenei is thought to have coaxed to the post following Rafsanjani’s damning support for the reformists in the 2009 Green Movement protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After Mahdavi-Kani’s heart attack-induced coma in 2014, Rafsanjani again made a bid for the position. But he lost by a nearly two-fold margin to another hardline conservative and former head of judiciary, Mohammad Yazdi, who currently chairs the assembly.


The assembly’s composition throughout the decades is in many ways even more important. In the first assembly (1983–91), conservatives made up the bulk of members even as their opponents maintained control over other key institutions such as the prime ministry and the parliament. From the second assembly onward (1991–99), the increasingly influential conservatives marginalized their opponents, the radicals, who were by now reinventing themselves as reformists. The radicals-turned-reformists’ general lack of high-ranking clerics worked against them as the Guardian Council foisted new religious requirements on assembly members. At the same time, voter turnout for assembly elections plunged by over half, which hardly reflected well on regime legitimacy.

Little changed during the third assembly (1999–2007), with conservatives continuing to hold the majority despite efforts by Mohammad Khatami’s reformist administration to soften the Guardian Council’s control of assembly elections. Excluding the 12 seats that Rafsanjani’s moderate conservatives won, the traditional conservatives alone held 49 of the total 86 seats. Although encouraging signs of change appeared in the candidacies of non-clerics and even women, they were ultimately rejected.

At the start of the current assembly (2007–16), growing tensions within the right–wing saw traditional conservatives making gains at the expense of the ultraconservatives allied with the Ahmadinejad administration, most prominently those associated with the notorious firebrand cleric Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi. But over the period, the assembly’s top post swapped hands several times, alternating among pragmatic, traditional, and hardline conservative bidders.

At the moment, hardliners and conservatives who are also closely affiliated with the Association of Qom Seminary Theologians and the Combatant Clergy Society remain a clear majority. Indeed, of the 20 or so living veterans who have been members in at least four of the five previous terms (including the original 1979 constitutional assembly), only one—Sayyed Kazem Nourmofidi, Khamenei’s representative in Golestan province and Gorgan’s Friday Prayer Imam—is known to be a moderate and indeed, a reformist. Some 801 candidates have reportedly registered to run for the coming fifth assembly (2016–24), a 60 percent increase over the previous round of registration. Whatever the proportion of hardliners, their presence will likely only grow stronger as the Guardian Council disqualifies a large number of candidates. Even so, voter turnout for the assembly, traditionally low, could be boosted since the vote will take place at the same time as parliamentary elections.

Because traditional conservatives and hardliners have been the majority since the beginning, the Iranian media takes note when prominent moderates and certainly reformists announce their intent to run. Now in his 80s and subtly sidelined by Khamenei and the hardliners, Rafsanjani recently refloated the option of creating a leadership council as opposed to the current one-man show. This was clearly an attempt to return front and center rather than to strengthen Iran’s Republican values. But even more important this time isHassan Khomeini, the 43-year-old grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder who decided on December 18 that he would run for the assembly. Unlike Rafsanjani, Qom-born Khomeini’s hallowed lineage and relatively cordial relations with Khamenei, despite run-ins with hardliners in the past and ties to reformists, still puts him in a league apart. If the Guardian Council doesn’t stonewall his candidacy, Khomeini could muster a massive groundswell of support and bring out the voters for both the assembly and parliamentary elections, at the very least diminishing the prospects of a default conservative walkover.


Given the recent foreign policy gains in the P5+1 nuclear negotiations by President Hassan Rouhani, himself an assembly member and a perceived moderate, hardliners have all the more reason to worry about their political careers. The eventual lifting of sanctions would likely reshape the structure of incentives among Iran’s economic players, creating space for greater competition to the detriment of the Revolutionary Guards and their allies. Unsurprisingly, hardliners have sought to best the moderates on home ground by clamping down on civil society and individuals with connections to the United States and the West, thereby perpetuating a familiar compensatory pattern in factional wrangling.

Perhaps feeling the pressure, Iran’s hardline judiciary has pursued a campaign against Sayyed Mahmoud Doaei, the reformist editor of Ettela’at newspaper but no less an official Khamenei representative, for breaking the ban on press coverage of reformist ex-president Khatami, who had supported the Green Movement. Similarly, the Revolutionary Guards have flaunted ballistic missile tests in violation of UN Resolution 1929 and even reportedly fired several rockets during naval maneuvers near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in late December despite, or more likely because of the nuclear agreement. More dramatically, the firebombing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by unidentified provocateurs in response to the Saudis’ execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has provided plenty of grist for the hardliners’ mill, threatening to reverse Iran’s steady rehabilitation from international isolation.

When that fateful moment comes for the conclave of clerics, it is the naked power of numbers and the collusion of key veto players that will determine Iran’s post-Khamenei future. Some suspect that a select committee of hardliners within the assembly might attempt to unilaterally appoint the next leader. Even if the reformists pass muster and a non-hardliner assumes the assembly chair, the chances of them pushing through a winning coalition at succession time remains frustratingly limited. Three major obstacles ultimately stand in the way of any alterations to the domestic balance of power. First and foremost is the Guardian Council, which was deliberately created to perpetuate this conservative status quo and is unlikely to abandon its calling anytime soon. The second is the Revolutionary Guards who, riding on the coattails of the same status quo, have a vested interest in avoiding change. But most important is the same individual the Assembly of Experts is supposed to choose and supervise, which means that any hope of real change, both at home and abroad alike, probably has to wait.

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Picture: Raheb Homavandi / Reuters


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Parsing Iran’s Grand Strategy

Parsing IranThe National Interest, 16 November 2015

When it comes to understanding a state’s grand strategy, that is, the calibration of intentions and the sum of capabilities to assure its relative position within the international system, the specialist is frequently faced with the challenge of divining intentions—assuming the leaders in question themselves know what they want. This is doubly the case for states such as Iran that, while authoritarian, are at once riven by significant domestic divisions, possessed of impenetrably opaque decision making and consequently disposed to emitting mixed signals. Consider the ink Iran watchers have spilt debating Tehran’s undying revolutionary ends, regional hegemonic ambitions, “rationality” and survival-motivated expediency, often within the same breath. For non-great powers with only a limited margin of maneuver, however, a more empirically grounded approach that allows us to better carve the subject at the joints, so to speak, is by focusing on the notion of “grand strategic adjustments.”

Take again the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance. At three specific inflection points at intervals of roughly ten years, Iran’s decision makers undertook just such “adjustments” in response to systemic pressures and incentives. The end of the Iran-Iraq war and the Cold War, along with Khomeini’s death, fundamental revisions in the domestic structure of rule and the onset of the Gulf War compelled the first major crop of far-reaching changes. For one, the relatively moderate and forward-thinking Rafsanjani government shifted Iran onto a surer, pragmatic footing, a more balanced calibration of ends and means, along with the streamlining and rationalization of strategic decision making and institutions, signaling Tehran’s readiness to play by the rules of the international system. No longer would factional caprice set the tone and pace for foreign policy, as it had done in the context of the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. Instead of undying antagonism, Rafsanjani’s technocrats reached out to industrialized and rentier states alike, whose cooperation was necessary for the rehabilitation of the Iranian economy, including its inveterate rivals Britain and Saudi Arabia. The impetus for internal balancing, however, failed to overcome the inertia posed by the increasingly influential traditional conservatives led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who rejected mending fences with the sole remaining superpower—the U.S.—and its Zionist ally Israel.

In security and military affairs, Iran under Rafsanjani’s stewardship shifted from an obstinately gladiatorial thrust perfected during the eight-year war with Iraq to a more indirect Byzantine approach to pursue its national objectives. Not only did it cultivate the godless Russians and Chinese as major-power counterweights to Washington, which was by now running the entire show in the Persian Gulf to Tehran’s consternation, but it relied on both to shore up its critical defense, energy and nuclear sectors. Rather than earmarking massive resources towards a conventional military buildup, Iran opted to develop or acquire high-leverage asymmetric capabilities, including a brood of non-state armed allies, ballistic missiles and ultimately a nuclear program. What it lacked in coercive capacity it more than made up for in deterrent capability. If a pattern emerged that betokened this physical “line of least expectation,” to use Liddell Hart’s turn of phrase, Iran nonetheless maintained an ideological “line of greatest resistance” when it came to the US and Israel. No doubt this proved strategically costly within Iran’s ends-means calculus. Yet the alternative of détente or even worse, entente, would have insured political suicide for the helmsman of such a policy turnaround, thus routinizing a pattern for subsequent grand strategic thinking.

The second inflection point came when Osama bin Laden’s planes brought down the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, followed by the U.S.’ campaign of retribution in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the space of eighteen months, this suite of events completely remolded Iran’s strategic environment, engendering both threats deemed existential as well as crucial strategic opportunities. The reformist Khatami government of this period recognized the symmetry of interests on its wayward eastern border under the new circumstances, and labored to first put in place, and then maintain functional security cooperation with the Americans. When a series of contretemps embarrassed the official government in Tehran, including alleged Iranian support for terrorism, a ship carrying weapons to Gaza and, importantly, the clamorous disclosure of the Natanz and Arak nuclear facilities, things quickly headed south and forced Tehran to confront the reality that it might be next on the Pentagon’s crosshairs.

Feeling the heat, Khamenei gave the cue to then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rouhani to engage the EU3 (Britain, France, Germany) in the first major round of nuclear negotiations. According to the CIA’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Iran had effectively put its nuclear weapons program on ice in the autumn of 2003. The run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom that eventually decapitated Saddam’s Baathist regime offered another hit-and-run avenue for potential cooperation, pursued to the hilt, if reports of the “grand bargain” facsimile hand-delivered to the Bush administration through the Swiss ambassador are to be believed.

At the same time however, the U.S.’ position relative to Iran’s went on the decline as it struggled to make sense of, let alone impose a preferred peace on, the Afghan and Iraqi slaughterhouses. In 2005, the presidential elections in Iran saw the complete takeover by the neoconservatives and traditional conservatives of all that remained to be despoiled within elected officialdom, over and beyond the unelected bodies already being controlled by the traditional conservatives since 1989. This momentary unity of pan-conservative power arguably encouraged a strategic consistency and clarity of purpose, however fleeting. Skyrocketing oil prices and the palette of policy options it afforded magnified Iran’s braggadocio and in turn, the impression perceived by observers of an increasingly maximalist pursuit of ends, thickened by the grease of wanton rhetoric being leaked by the hardline neoconservative Ahmadinejad government.

Tehran went on the offensive in post-Saddam Iraq, helping midwife a Shia-majority state thanks to the quasi-democratic consensus the Americans had helped introduce in Iran’s western neighbor. Not only were they to distract and eventually disgorge US forces combating the rampant twin Sunni-Shia insurgency in Iraq, Iranian strategists were to also deter Washington’s military brass from invading the Iranian plateau at a time that it had elevated the country’s nuclear program to the ultimate symbol of Iranian independence, nationalism and pride. Even in the absence of an actual warhead, the dissembling ambiguity and pursuit of the other two elements of a nuclear weapons program—fuel enrichment (or separation, depending on the path chosen) and ballistic missile technology—created powerful leverage for Iran’s leaders over the international debate surrounding their country’s conduct.

Iran didn’t go all this alone. As the nuclear negotiations under Khatami’s watch fell apart with little to show for on the diplomatic front, the incoming Ahmadinejad government took Iran on a wide arc eastward, courting the three major powers Russia, India and especially energy-thirsty China, even as Tehran cozied up to a gaggle of third-rate, often leftist-populist and ultimately inconsequential governments in Latin America and Africa. On the whole, however, these overtures helped Tehran level the diplomatic playing field at least where the nuclear standoff, by now something of an unwanted cynosure, was concerned. Involvement and partial membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in addition, permitted Iran to finally set its external balancing strategy against the U.S. into a wider institutional context, with a potential security dimension short of a mutual defense clause. Little coincidence that this same region encompassed within the SCO largely corresponded with the “pivot area” for global control identified by the British geographer Halford Mackinder a century ago, from which “a series of horse-riding peoples emerged.”

The third inflection point then erupted with the Arab uprisings in 2011, which continue to roil the Middle East today. The initial sense of strategic opportunity quickly melted away as popular grassroots violence metastasized to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, compelling Iran to intensify and expand the scope of its intervention if its regional influence was not to be eroded. The rise of the self-styled Islamic State, and more critically, its virulently anti-Shia consolidation in Syria, Iraq and the borders of Lebanon—all three key redoubts of influence for Iran’s regional strategy —prompted greater battlefield visibility on the part of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and its allied militias, along with the increasingly frequent repatriation of body bags for burial on Iranian soil.

The Islamic State’s ritual brutality did displace Iran into a relatively more moderate light, on the other hand, with added contrast from Saudi Arabia’s perceived nurturing of Sunni extremism against the Shia, and Turkey’s vexingly unfathomable prevarication with respect to the stanching of jihadi fighters flowing into Syria. The central challenge amid the ongoing transformation of the region, however, remained the strategic contention for power and influence vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, the figurative firstborn among the region’s other Sunni powers.

At about this time, with Ahmadinejad’s nuclear rhetoric having reached something of a paroxysm, the states most concerned by a burgeoning Iranian nuclear arsenal, notably Israel and the US, effectively waged a non-hot war on Iran’s ability to acquire the bomb, bringing pressure to bear on the scientific-technological basis of its nuclear program and more broadly, on its oil and finance sectors through sanctions. With its economy and bedrock of any grand strategic pursuit at risk of terminal insolvency, Iran this time under former nuclear negotiator-turned-president Rouhani again banked hard towards negotiations. As it stands, Iran has so far secured recognition and legitimization of its controversial nuclear program and sealed its status as a nuclear threshold state. Not only that, it has temporarily traded in maximal deterrence—if that is indeed the eventual point behind the nuclear program—in order to avert the thickening specter of war, economic collapse and the further erosion of regime legitimacy. Indeed, the signing of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) likewise blunts the threats of an Israeli strike, given the cost such an action would incur following international legitimation of Iran’s nuclear program.

What emerges from a reading of Iran’s grand strategic adjustments in the preceding —“adjustments” being, as mentioned, the empirical basis of our evidence—suggests a tortuous but no less sustained effort to achieve greater strategic consistency of purpose, despite contradictions at twists and turns. Since the late 1980s, Tehran has come to evince a recognition of its limited means as opposed to its initial totalizing aims, attested in its recourse to a far more nuanced toolkit in comparison. Iran’s tactics no longer merely include the martyr’s iron faith, categorical rejection of everything opposed to Khomeini’s Revolution and the bloody art of the human wave. Iran has now also placed a premium on maximizing both influence and soft power, constantly renegotiating its margins of maneuver and seeking “situations of strength” where possible. Whatever hard power it still held, it repurposed into tools of deterrence in order to hold its enemies hostage against the threat of regime decapitation and war. Iran’s decision makers have no doubt also proven responsive to threats and opportunities in respect of its relative international position, pursuing self-preservation at the very least, and ever probing the promise of self-aggrandizement. Overarching this entire enterprise is the logic of expediency, deference to which provides in some ways the organizing principle in matters of peace and certainly war, and which bears testament to the flexibility so necessary for any viable grand strategy.

What of the inconsistencies, then? The push-and-pull of domestic inter-elite competition pulsing to the country’s multiple centers of power goes a long way towards explaining seemingly irrational outcomes. This includes the reification and, indeed, sanctification of a rejectionist outlook that precludes overtures to anything associated with the Shah and the U.S., along with its “imperial-colonial-Zionist outpost” in the heart of the Muslim world. The cast of mind identified with a Supreme Leader historically dependent on the hardliners for personal legitimacy, influence and power also predisposes Iran towards a particular set of grand strategic options rather than others. Factional wrangling, because the hardliners do not maintain absolute control despite their influence, ultimately lay behind seeming bouts of suboptimal rationality—if the definition of such a term can even be pinned down. In other words, domestic actors have more often than not leveraged on foreign policy in seemingly irrational ways with the aim of effecting superbly rational outcomes in the internal balance of power.

What this all boils down to is that while Iran has untiringly sought to defend its legitimate interests, it has done so in ways that often instead aggravate the threat perceptions of others, which in turn feeds into a vicious circle intensifying Iran’s own insecurity and paranoia. Iran’s own uncompromising animus against the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular has, as any mildly informed observer would point out, come to shape and dominate Tehran’s own threat perceptions and national security thinking. One of many historical parallels that come to mind is that of Ming-dynasty China. The Great Wall, which reached its structural culmination during this period, was not so much necessitated in and of itself by unprovoked and unrelenting Mongol aggression from the northwestern steppe. Instead, the refusal time and again by the Son of Heaven and his courtiers to treat with what they considered inferior barbarians compelled the nomads to take by the sword what they could not take by trade and diplomacy, eventually forcing the militarily outclassed Chinese to prioritize static defense. As we now know in hindsight, the gainly wall, in conjunction with internal treachery, did little to prevent another nomadic people, the Manchus, from replacing the Ming with the Qing dynasty.

Ultimately, while Iran’s leadership has proven that it is by and large equal to the tasks of reconciling ends and means and identifying the critical threats and opportunities necessary to the conduct of grand strategy, the trouble with it lies somewhere else: in its stubborn inability to transcend the vicious circle of self-provoked challenges. True, Tehran has so far proven able to deter and keep at bay war and regime change. Yet it has also confined its own grand strategic maneuvering to responding, however adequately, to its own self-manufactured crises.

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Image: Flickr/Örlygur Hnefill


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Big data and strategic intelligence

INS ImageIntelligence and National Security

July 2015

DOI:10.1080/02684527.2015.1062321 (print version scheduled for 2016)

This article examines the intersection of Big Data and strategic intelligence from a theoretical-conceptual viewpoint. Adopting Popperian refutation as a starting point, it approaches methodological issues surrounding the incorporation of Big Data into the intelligence cycle, and argues that Big Data analytics is best used to discern long-term developments, generate intelligence hypotheses, and adduce refuting facts. The article then briefly examines the use of Big Data via social media, an increasingly fertile platform for intelligence analysis. Finally, the article argues that despite its potential in filling our epistemic gaps, Big Data should continue to complement traditional subject-matter expertise, supported by game theory, as part of a tripartite analytical framework for strategic intelligence consisting of ‘subtext’, ‘context’ and ‘metatext’. In this respect, Big Data may well become the midwife for more open modes of intelligence management and, ultimately, a more open society.

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Iran seen from Beijing

Sino-IranThe Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policywatch 2435, 11 June 2015

China views Iran as a central element in its much-touted Silk Road Economic Belt, which aims to extend Beijing’s influence overland through Central Asia to the Persian Gulf and Europe.

Although China has long been Iran’s largest oil customer, international sanctions recently relegated the Islamic Republic from third to sixth place among Beijing’s suppliers — a list consistently topped by Iranian rival Saudi Arabia. Similarly, while China’s bilateral trade with Iran reportedly expanded to around $50 billion by late 2014, it remains dwarfed nearly elevenfold by its trade with the United States.

Given these figures, why does Iran play a seemingly disproportionate role in Beijing’s regional calculus, often to the puzzlement of its much larger energy and trade partners in Riyadh and Washington? Diplomatic brinksmanship aside, much of the answer lies in Iran’s geostrategic value as a key hub in China’s westward overland thrust, which Beijing views as essential to countering both Washington’s eastward pivot and U.S. naval superiority.


China and Iran’s durable ties stretch back as far as the Han and Parthian empires, when the two civilizations were trade partners on the ancient Silk Road. When the Arabs invaded Iranshahr in the seventh century, Peroz III, scion of the swansong Sassanian monarch Yazdgird III, sought and was offered refuge in Tang China by the Emperor Gaozong. In modern times, despite substantive ideological differences, Ruhollah Khomeini and Mao Zedong instilled both countries with revolutionary legacies that rejected imperial hegemony and foreign exploitation, putting them on the same side against the U.S.-led status quo. Continue reading

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National security decision-making in Iran

UCSTComparative Strategy 34.2 (May 2015)

This article reviews national security decision-making in the Iranian context by focusing on institutions, formal process and individuals. It specifically examines the Supreme National Security Council, which formalizes and embodies the decision-making process, as well as the Revolutionary Guards, which epitomize both the influence of institutions as well as the centrality of the agent-individual. Despite the plurality of formal institutions and the existence of process, decision-making remains heavily centered on a small group of largely unelected individuals driven as much by ‘regime expediency’ as by mutual give-and-take along informal, microfactional lines. While he may have the last word, even Iran’s current Supreme Leader is constrained by these ideological, negotiational and structural factors. These key figures are closely affiliated either with the politico-clerical founding kernel of the 1979 Revolution, or the powerful Revolutionary Guards—mainly the hardliners in any case—and are instrumental in determining the discursive boundaries of national security, the scope of which this article confines to defense and foreign policy. Finally, how all this coheres in the realm of strategy has as much to do with regime survival as with the art of reconciling ends and means.

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