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Tag: "iran"


[ 7 ] April 12, 2010 |

Seems like progress, if sanctions on Iran are your thing:

President Obama secured a promise from President Hu Jintao of China on Monday to join negotiations on a new package of sanctions against Iran, administration officials said, but Mr. Hu made no specific commitment to backing measures that the United States considers severe enough to force a change in direction in Iran’s nuclear program.

In a 90-minute conversation here before the opening of a summit meeting on nuclear security, Mr. Obama sought to win more cooperation from China by directly addressing one of the main issues behind Beijing’s reluctance to confront Iran: its concern that Iran could retaliate by cutting off oil shipments to China. The Chinese import nearly 12 percent of their oil from Iran.

Mr. Obama assured Mr. Hu that he was “sensitive to China’s energy needs” and would work to make sure that Beijing had a steady supply of oil if Iran cut China off in retaliation for joining in severe sanctions.

I’m skeptical of sanctions working, if by “working” you mean to effect a direct change in Iranian behavior. However, I do think that sanctions can have a substantial atmospheric effect, to the extent that they convey the disapproval of international society, and consequently help to build international norms. In that context, getting Russia and China on board is a meaningful achievement for the liberal internationalist project.


Brookings Israel-Iran Game

[ 24 ] March 30, 2010 |

The New York Times published another article on the Brookings write-up of an Israel-Iran wargame conducted in December. The opening stages of the game were strikingly similar to the Patterson Israel-Iran game of last month; Israel attacks without notifying the US, Iran responds in measured fashion, tension builds between Israel and the United States, and Israel prepares for major assault against Hezbollah. At that point, however, there’s a major change; Iran launches a ballistic missile attack against a Saudi oil refinery, and begins mining the Strait of Hormuz. At this point the United States gets involved, and the game ends just before a major US attack on Iranian military assets.

The key difference here is the decision by the Iranian team to attack Saudi Arabia and mine the Strait of Hormuz. This action forces the hand of the United States, and essentially resolves tension between the US, Israel, and the Gulf monarchies. It also results in a very serious setback for Iranian military power. At Patterson, our Iran team considered but rejected the possibility of expanding the war, preferring instead to play it cool and let the US-Israel relationship fester. Here’s Kenneth Pollack’s explanation of the reasoning of the Iranian team:

The Iran team’s decision to mount attacks on Saudi targets requires some explanation. The Iran team concluded that the fact that many of the Israeli aircraft had traversed Saudi Arabia was proof of Israeli and Saudi collusion. Control allowed this because it decided that in the real world, the Iranian regime might reach such a conclusion, given how paranoid and conspiracy-minded it is. Interestingly, the Iran team believed that it could attack Saudi targets, including Saudi oil targets, without necessarily provoking an American military response. Ultimately, they did overstep, but the measured and balanced initial American response to these attacks convinced the Iran team that they were right in this assumption and caused them to push harder, to the point where they did cross an American red line and provoked the U.S. military response they had sought to avoid.

The Iran team tried hard to gauge American red lines. When they did not get strong resistance to one of their moves, they kept pushing forward until they did—and in the most important instance, actually overstepped a U.S. red line. While we suspect the real Iranian regime would be more cautious about attacking Saudi oil targets (especially given the historical American reaction to Iranian attacks on Persian Gulf oil exports during the 1980s), this still suggests that a highly aggressive Iranian regime may see approaches that the United States considers “even-handed,” “balanced,” or even “neutral” as invitations to escalate. (Of course, a less aggressive Iranian regime might be provoked to escalatory actions they would not otherwise take if they saw American assertiveness as a sign of malign intent rather than as the clarification of a red line and the demonstration of American resolve to defend that red line.)

Two thoughts:

  • The Iranian decision to attack Saudi Arabia is both odd and self-destructive. How an Iranian team could have convinced itself that the US wouldn’t respond to an attack on one of its chief clients is beyond me; up to that point, it seems to me that the Iranians are doing quite well by pursuing a moderate strategy. Although Patterson assumed a much lower level of damage from the initial Israeli attack than Brookings, the Iranians were still widely regarded to have been the “winners” of the simulation. Of course, a writeup of the Brookings exercise was available to our students, giving them the opportunity to learn from earlier mistakes. However, the results of the Brookings exercise are also available to the Iranians; the point of such exercises is to inform government policy, and it wouldn’t be that surprising if governments other than the US paid attention.
  • It’s interesting and somewhat troubling to learn that the Iran simulators thought about the United States primarily in terms of strength, resolve, and will. I’ll pre-emptively caveat this by saying that I have no idea how the Iranians would actual treat the United States after an Israeli attack, and that I have no idea the value that the Iranians put on questions of reputation and resolve. Given, however, that the Iran players here were Americans and not actual Iranian officials, I’m somewhat suspicious of how closely Iranian behavior tracks an unsophisticated theory of the importance of a reputation for strength. According the Pollack, the Iranian team saw any sign of moderation on the part of the United States as a signal of weakness and irresolution. This is the worst fear of American neoconservatives; engagement and moderation signal weakness, and invite aggression. In this formulation, an “aggressor” like Iran is extremely risk-acceptant, pushing the United States until it reaches a “red line.” Had the US taken a firm line at some point, by this account, the Iranians would have understood and desisted from further “aggression.” This theory of diplomatic behavior, however, is both logically problematic and empirically suspect. While it’s possible that states will interpret moderation as weakness, they can also interpret it in other ways; our team at Patterson, for example, saw US moderation as understandable caution and sought to exploit differences between the US and Israel. Empirically, it’s unclear that reputations for weakness or strength form in a manner that’s necessary for this theory to work. As Jon Mercer argues, reputation for resolve depends much more on prior belief than on recent observed behavior. Thus, I have to wonder whether the Iranian team was operating on an unsophisticated set of theories about how Iranians ought to act, rather than pursuing self-interest in a more or less rational way. I particular have to wonder this in the context of the attack on Saudi Arabia, which is really hard to believe.

To put it as clearly as possible: In the Patterson simulation, Iran did very well by acting with restraint. In the Brookings simulation, Iran was doing very well by acting with restraint until someone decided that US moderation was weakness, at which point the Iranians launched an absurd attack and got crushed. Given this, isn’t it worthwhile to take into account the possibility that Iran could “win” such a crisis by acting with restraint? Or does that possibility undermine the whole rationale behind attacking Iran? This is to say, if we allow that Iran can act with restraint AFTER being attacked by Israel, doesn’t that open up the possibility that Iran could, well, act with restraint BEFORE being attacked by Israel? And wouldn’t that make such an attack pointless?

Troubling Nonsense Coming Out of CNAS

[ 12 ] March 25, 2010 |

Why try to pretend that this should be taken seriously?

Second, it’s not just about drugs. The Venezuelan alliance is almost a classic geopolitical attempt to deny the US access to Latin America — probably including Mexico — and to gain access to our southern border. FARC is not only the world’s largest producer of cocaine, but continues to be a murderous terrorist insurgency. The cartels, which are fast becoming a worldwide concern, are not only about drugs, but also about control of territory and other criminal activities — murder, kidnapping, extortion, counterfeiting, money laundering, among others. This is emphatically not the old, “comfortable” Mafia, and legalizing drugs, even if it were possible, would not make these trans-national criminal organizations go away, particularly when they have the support of narco-states like Venezuela has become. They will just shift to other sources of income.

I quite like Tom Ricks, but really, what’s with letting your blog become a platform for this nonsense? Venezuela and Iran are trying to seize control of Mexico and gain access to our southern border? “Narco-states” like Venezuela “will just shift to other sources of income” if drugs are legalized? What sources of income would those be? And how precisely are Venezuela and Iran and Cuba supposed to “deny US access” to Latin America, much less Mexico? Is it worth noting, at all, that Mexico has a population and economy which are each 4 times as large as those of Venezuela? And yet we’re supposed to be worried about magical narco-terror networks that can just create money whenever they want?

Why would anyone ever bother to pretend that any of this makes sense? It worries me that this garbage is coming out under the CNAS banner.

2010 Patterson Simulation

[ 0 ] March 1, 2010 |

On Friday and Saturday, the Patterson School conducted its annual policy simulation. This year, Patterson students simulated the 22 hours following an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, with a focus on the diplomatic consequences of such an attack. The University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications cooperated in the simulation, with students from thee SJT operating websites representing two news networks, Gulf News Service (an Al Jazeera clone) and International News Network (a CNN clone). A full summary of the simulation can be found at Information Dissemination.

What Leverage Does a Nuke Earn Iran?

[ 0 ] February 11, 2010 |

Kroenig, via Yglesias:

The United States’ global power-projection capability provides Washington with a significant strategic advantage: It can protect, or threaten, Iran and any other country on the planet. An Iranian nuclear weapon, however, would greatly reduce the latitude of its armed forces in the Middle East. If the United States planned a military operation in the region, for example, and a nuclear-armed Iran objected that the operation threatened its vital interests, any U.S. president would be forced to rethink his decision.

Really? Why? I can see how a US President might be forced to rethink a decision that would lead inevitably to the destruction of the Iranian state; in such a scenario, we might plausibly expect that there would be at least a chance that the Iranians would use a nuclear weapon, although of course the first step of any such intervention would be extremely heavy bombing attacks on all known or suspected Iranian nuclear weapon sites. But for anything short of actually conquering Iran and overthrowing its government, do nuclear weapons give Iran any additional leverage? Does anyone think that Iran would have used a nuke in protest of the US invasion of Iraq, or Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah? Or the establishment of US bases on Iran’s borders? Under what circumstances, exactly, would an Iranian nuclear weapon actual force the United States to reconsider some action it wished to take?

I understand the stability-instability paradox, the idea that the strategic stability produced by nuclear weapons can produce low level instability. If that’s the argument Kroenig is making (having a nuke will allow Iran more latitude in mucking about in Iraq or Lebanon or Gaza) then it should be made with greater clarity (and perhaps it is in the book). Even here, however, I doubt that the stability-instability paradox really holds; US conventional capabilities are so advanced that I very much doubt that any Iranian nuclear capability could survive a US conventional first strike.

Another way to think of this is to look to the example of Pakistan. The Pakistani nuclear deterrent hasn’t prevented the United States from overthrowing Pakistan’s client in Afghanistan, continuing the fight against that client for nine years (as the fight destabilized Pakistan’s border regions), and even launching a long campaign of attacks within Pakistan’s borders. It’s almost enough to make one doubt that nuclear weapons actually provide any serious leverage in ordinary diplomatic and military disputes.

Two questions for Glenn Reynolds

[ 0 ] January 12, 2010 |

(1)If Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed by the Iranian government because he was reportedly sympathetic to opponents of it, would that terrorism?

(2) If on the other hand he was working an an atomic weapons program for the Iranian government, and was as a consequence quietly killed by the CIA, would that be terrorism?

This is an open book exam. Please be sure to support your answer with specific references to the relevant legal texts and doctrines.

Israeli Missile Defenses

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

Check out this (somewhat dated) article on Israeli missile defenses. The article makes the point that Israel’s missile defenses have progressed to the point that even a concerted Iranian ballistic missile attack, fielding far more weapons that Iran is expected to have in the next twenty years, could not hope to destroy Israel’s capacity to retaliate. An Iranian attack on Israel might fail entirely, and in any case would be utterly suicidal. Also note that several Israeli officials argue that the Iranian regime is NOT suicidal. All of this kind of makes me wonder about two things:

1. Why do we continue to hear nonsense about “one bomb” being able to destroy Israel, followed quickly by nonsense about how the US would be unwilling to respond on behalf of a country that no longer exists? Neither of these points are defensible; while an advanced, massive multi-megaton Soviet nuclear warhead might be able to destroy Israel in one chunk, any Iranian weapon fielded in the next forty years is certain to have a yield measured in double digit kilotons, and thus incapable of destroying Israel in a moment. Such an attack would give Israel a really bad day/month/year/decade, but Israel would respond by giving Iran a really bad century/millenium/what’s longer than a millenium?.

2. Why does Israel need to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program? The answer would seem to be some sort of nebulous claim about how Iranian nuclear weapons would somehow immeasurably improve Iran’s negotiating position in the Middle East; Iran and its allies would suddenly become emboldened, or something. This ignores a) the reality that states balance against power and threat, and b) the reality that nuclear states very often have a bloody difficult time getting what they want from non-nuclear states. The entire argument seems based on a 1962 Paul Nitze vision of nuclear weapons, in which more nukes automatically grant extraordinary diplomatic leverage. Allowing that there’s something to the stability-instability paradox, I think it’s fair to say that nuclear weapons have, at best, proven to be blunt, unsophisticated, and not terribly useful tools of diplomacy.

The caveat is this, and it goes to the heart of problems with the strategic implications of ballistic missile defense. The tighter Israel weaves its ABM shield, the less likely that any attack by terrorists or by a suicidal (yes, I know) Iran is to be delivered by ballistic missile. The same is true for the United States; Heritage is dedicated to wasting everyone’s time by claiming that terrorists could launch a nuclear armed SCUD from an offshore barge, without ever asking why terrorists would bother to buy the SCUD when they could just sail the ship into Boston Harbor. Unlike the US, I don’t think that Israeli strategic ballistic missile defense is a waste of time; the country is small enough that a conventional ballistic missile assault could do damage, and has suffered such an attack in recent memory. But I suppose the takeaway is simply that there is no “magic bullet” that can provide complete security.

Better propaganda, please.

The "Bomb Iran" Lobby is Getting Kind of Amateurish…

[ 0 ] October 13, 2009 |

Jeffrey Herf has taken to The New Republic in an effort to convince Americans that negotiations will go nowhere unless we threaten Tehran with an extensive bombing campaign. Herf is a specialist on Germany; Divided Memory is an excellent study of the different ways in which East and West Germans remember Nazism, and War by Other Means is interesting enough, even as it rather misses the point by over-emphasizing the role of Germany (and the missile debate more generally) in ending the Cold War. The vast expansion of literature on the Soviet point of view, in particular, has not been kind to Herf’s argument. In any case, Herf has some theories about relations between democracies and autocracies, and Marty saw fit to give him a platform. Yglesias identifies some problems; here are some more.

The essential problem is an old one in the history of negotiations between dictatorships and democracies. As was the case in the famous negotiations over intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe in the 1980s, there is a fundamental asymmetry whenever a dictatorship sits down at the table with a democracy…All the domestic political pressures of the debate will be asymmetric: They will have an impact only on the governments of Britain, France, Germany, and the United States.

Herf doesn’t back this statement up, which suggests to me that he’s done almost no research on the issue. If he had, he’d know that there is in fact a literature on negotiation, and that democracies have some key advantages in negotiations with dictatorships. In particular, the constraints that democratic negotiators face can work to their advantage in determining outcomes within the range of mutually acceptable alternatives. Hard domestic constraints, assuming that they allow any agreement at all, are a massive plus at the negotiating table, because they limit what a negotiator can give away. It’s particularly fascinating that Herf invokes negotiations over the French and British nuclear arsenals, because, by his own account, the democracies won those negotiations, and won them because of electoral constraints. Indeed, democratic transparency often works to the advantage of negotiators; an American President can credibly argue that a treaty will not survive the Senate, while a Soviet General Secretary has much more trouble proving that the Red Army will veto a proposed arrangement. Herf would be well-advised to conduct additional research into the reasons why West prevailed on those negotiations, at least before engaging in another intellectual indefensible polemical exercise.

In December 1979, President Carter and our NATO allies agreed both to counter the new Soviet weapons by stationing American intermediate-range missiles in Europe and to propose a new round of arms-control negotiations with the Soviets, offering a scaled-backed NATO deployment in return for a reduction in their SS-20s. The USSR, however, demanded something more: that the nuclear weapons of Britain and France be counted in any negotiations. Under the Soviet scheme, Britain and France would have to pay the price for reductions in Soviet missiles by reducing or eliminating their nuclear arsenals, thus creating a “nuclear-free” Europe.

There’s rather a different way of thinking about this. Desiring the inclusion of British and French nuclear arsenals in the arms control negotiations may have been part of an actual, legitimate goal of Soviet foreign policy, rather than a negotiating “ploy”. The United Kingdom had, of course, developed its nuclear deterrent in collaboration with the United States. The primary delivery system for British nuclear weapons was the Polaris missile, designed in the United States. The United Kingdom was, moreover, tied to the United States through alliance in NATO. France was less constrained, and the French nuclear deterrent more independent, but nevertheless it’s hardly obvious that the Soviet desire to include the British and French arsenals as an element of the negotiations was either absurd or illegitimate. In the case of war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, British and French missiles could destroy Soviet cities with exactly the same effectiveness as American missiles. Thus, I’d rather refrain from using the term “gambit” to describe what most rational observers would conclude was a rational, legitimate objective of Soviet foreign policy.

This brings us to the one policy option that Tehran truly fears–and thus the only one that gives these negotiations any realistic chance of success: a credible threat of military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities by the United States, perhaps joined by Britain and France, or Israel. If the Iranian leadership believed that such an attack was a real possibility, it, or some parts of it, might be persuaded to change course.

Right; the mullahs only understand the language of force, etc. Of course, if Dr. Herf had taken the US-Soviet analogy a bit farther, he might have been forced to notice that one of the key developments in the Soviet arms control stance in the mid-1980s was the Soviet realization that the US was not preparing to launch a preventive nuclear attack. Reagan’s rhetoric and arms buildup, whatever effect they may have had on the Soviet economy and on Soviet human rights, most certainly strengthened the hand of hardliners who argued that the US was planning to fight and win and offensive nuclear war. One of keys to Gorbachev’s success was his ability to argue that Reagan didn’t actually plan to attack, contrary to what appeared to be US preparations for war. In this sense, it was Soviet security, rather than Soviet vulnerability, that gave Gorbachev the ability to pursue arms control with Reagan. Had American hardliners such as Richard Perle and Dick Cheney prevailed, Reagan would have pursued a much more aggressive stance, and it’s unlikely that Gorbachev would have been able to budge the Soviet military-industrial complex. The Soviet Union would probably still have collapsed, but it almost certainly would have been a much more chaotic and bloody affair. Herf misses out on this because of either his inability or his refusal to understand that dictatorships also have factions, interest groups, and bureaucratic roadblocks, and his refusal to allow that the core interest of the Iranian leadership is their own security and survival, rather than nuclear weapons.

And this gets rather to the core of the problems with Herf’s approach. He assumes away Iranian domestic constraints, in spite of overwhelming evidence that a) dictatorships face internal constraints based on public pressure on bureaucratic infighting, b) that domestic constraints have unpredictable, and indeed often positive, effects on negotiating stances, and c) that dire military threats often empower the domestic actors in target countries that we’re least interested in seeing gain power. He seems to believe that since the regime successfully stole an election and hasn’t collapsed in the past three months, that it is free of domestic constraints. Such a position does not, as they say, demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of the way that authoritarian regimes operate; indeed, it would likely get Herf laughed out of an Introduction to Comparative Politics course.

In addition, Herf displays a cavalier ignorance of the Iranian regime; I suspect that the one thing the leadership TRULY fears is being overthrown by its domestic enemies, but not being an Iran specialist I try to refrain from writing statements like “the one thing Tehran truly fears.” Other than all that, however, Herf’s essay is just spiffy.

The Sanctions Question

[ 0 ] October 8, 2009 |

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, via Phil Korsnes:

if Iran is as close to nuclear capability as it is claimed, it should have a strong interest in non-proliferation. Making it difficult for a newcomer to join the nuclear club would enhance the value of its own potential membership and dissuade rivals from taking a similar path. If a major goal of sanctions against Iran is to dissuade other countries from taking the path to nuclear capability that Iran has taken, the possibility to make that case with “Iran as a partner” should be kept in mind…

This doesn’t make much sense to me; we strengthen non-proliferation institutions by not making a fuss about the Iranian nuclear program? Why would anyone ever believe a claim that went like this: “No, seriously; Iran is the LAST country that we’ll tolerate as part of the nuclear club. Nobody else gets in.” Indeed, I suspect that non-proliferation would suffer much more from toleration of and acquiesence in Iran’s nuclear program than in challenge to it, even if Iran manages to get a nuke anyway. There’s some value to both the international opprobrium that comes from violating non-proliferation rules (if Iran violates such rules by moving farther along the road to nukes), and to the added costs created by sanctions against such violation. I happen to think that the NPT has been a wildly successful international institution, and that preserving as much of its essence as possible is a worthy US security goal, and that defending the NPT through tolerating Iranian nukes makes about as much sense as fighting for non-proliferation by browbeating the Japanese into going nuclear.

That said, Salehi-Isfahani’s larger point about the effectiveness of sanctions is well taken. It’s not clear how sanctions lead to either a)regime change, or b)the end of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Although the Iranian opposition has been surprisingly critical of the regime’s foreign policy stance, I’d still be surprised if aggressive sanctions regime didn’t produce a “rally-round-the-flag” effect. At the same time, I think that international disapproval is something that states take into account when they develop policy, and that the clear demonstration of such disapproval is sensible. Iran’s compliance with the IAEA is twitchy at best, although its announcement of the Qom facility and guarantee to allow inspections improves the situation. It’s key to note, however, that countries announce the existence of nuclear facilities and allow inspections of those facilities because they wish to remain in compliance with international law; agreements matter, and sanctions for flouting agreements also matter.

Iranian Ballistic Missiles

[ 0 ] September 14, 2009 |

It’s hard to say how to take this long post on the Iranian ballistic missile program; there’s a lot of detail, but where evidence is not openly available conclusions are always questionable. The assertions that Iran is receiving substantial missile technology support from North Korea (not surprising), China, (not really surprising), and Russia (very mildly surprising) is probably the biggest takeaway. In any case, give it a read if you’re interested in Iran, ballistic missiles, or the proliferation of “illicit” technology.

A Giant Space Vacuum Cleaner!

[ 0 ] September 1, 2009 |

Anyone hyping the EMP threat ought to be laughed out of public life…

Once More with Feeling…

[ 0 ] August 18, 2009 |

Bernard Finel handles the latest attack-Iran nonsense capably, but I’d like to supplement three points:

  1. Fabius Maximus refers to General Wald’s post as part of a “years long project to start a war with Iran.” That’s true enough, but it’s also clear that General Wald envisions the war itself as lasting, well, years:

    Furthermore, while a successful bombing campaign would set back Iranian nuclear development, Iran would undoubtedly retain its nuclear knowhow. An attack would also necessitate years of continued vigilance, both to retain the ability to strike previously undiscovered sites and to ensure that Iran does not revive its nuclear program.

    The point is clear; a military strike cannot “solve” the problem of Iranian nuclear weapons. Only many strikes over many years can do that…

  2. With due respect to General Wald, anyone who argues that a nuclear weapon will grant Iran dominance over the Persian Gulf is a liar, a moron, or both. If a tiny nuclear arsenal with no second strike capability and an unreliable delivery system, in conjunction with a years’ outdated conventional military that’s a vanishingly small fraction of the size of the US military or the military organizations of the chief American regional proxies can win “dominance,” then, well, we might as well give up right now. The floor is yours, Private Hudson:
  3. General Wald invokes the “existential” threat to Israel as a reason to attack Iran. It’s worth dwelling on that for just a moment. The existential threat to Israel isn’t so much the possibility that Iran will launch a nuke as it is that Iranian possession of nukes will make Israeli life intolerable. The slightly elevated chance of nuclear annihilation, combined with increased Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, will make life in Israel sufficiently sketchy and unpleasant that Israeli Jews will begin emigrating to the United States, Russian “Jews” will stop emigrating to Israel, and the demographic balance in Israel proper (to say nothing of Mandate Palestine) will shift decisively in favor of Israeli Arabs, effectively destroying the Jewish state. This argument has been made with varying degrees of explicitness by Michael Oren and other Israeli officials. These concerns are real enough, given a particular construction of Israeli national interest. They do not, however, amount to an “existential” threat in the sense that the United States and the Soviet Union posed existential threats to one another during the Cold War. Moreover, I can’t help but think that there’s a certain absurdity in Israeli policymakers demanding what amounts to an absolute degree of security. If David Ben-Gurion had employed the same existential standard, then the state of Israel would never have been founded. Statecraft is dirty, dangerous business, and existential threats are pretty much an inevitable part of doing that business. Of course, the revolutionary generation always accepts sacrifice in the hope that its children will reap the benefits, but it’s still difficult not to conclude that the apple has fallen rather far from the tree.
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