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Revisiting Saudi-Iranian Rivalry: From A Cold War Perspective

Zaeem Hassan Mehmood

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Middle East considered the “bridge between the East and West” has long grabbed attention of great power policy makers due to its geostrategic and geopolitical significance. After the discovery of oil in the early part of 20th Century, Iran and Saudi Arabia had gained a prominent position at the global international arena. The defining moment in their relation was the year 1968, when the British government announced its withdrawal from the “Persian Gulf,” threatening thereby the balance brought to an equilibrium by more than 150 years of English security guarantees to the sheikdoms. The international community largely sees the conflict in terms of sectarian and on religious grounds which is an inadequate approach and one that rules out other detrimental factor. There have been little analysis and studies undertaken on the conflict from a “Cold war” perspective, which can significantly help other states in maintaining a viable balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The conflict dubbed as the “New Middle East Cold War” or “Saudi-Iranian Cold War” is not the first event termed as “Cold war” in the Middle Eastern history. Malcolm Kerr writing in his acclaimed book Arab Cold War 1958-67 termed the growing rivalry and quest for leadership in the Middle East at the aftermath of British and French withdrawal between Republican Egypt and conservative Arab monarchies as a regional equivalent of Cold war. The present relations of Saudi Arabia and Iran are short of war, a condition where although the contenders do not engage in open battlefields face to face, it is a ‘battle’ nevertheless fought on different fronts including the media. Daniel Serwer of John Hopkins writes that Saudi-Iran conflict is regional equivalent of20th century US-Soviet Cold war.

Characteristics of Cold War

The term ‘cold war’ had been in use before 1945 to describe period of extreme tensions between states that were just short of war. In the year 1893, German socialist Eduard Bernstein described the arms race between Germany and its neighbors as a kind of ‘cold war’ where “there is no shooting but bleeding.” The term rapidly came back into use when United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) faced each other eyeball to eyeball. British writer George Orwell remarked on the significance of the moment foreseeing “a peace that is no peace” where the two mighty powers were to be “unconquerable and in a permanent state of cold war.”Anders Stephanson has defined the essence of a Cold War as consisting of characteristics whereby both sides deny each other the legitimacy as a regime, attempting to attack each other by all means short of war. This is in the view of the author, followed by an intense military buildup with a prolonged arms race.

Cold War since then has exclusively referred to as the ‘sustained state of political and military tensions’ between the 20th century superpowers. Although the rivalry had ceased with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the term and subject-matter has remained ever relevant to an extent that the study of grand strategy and security is considered incomplete without the former’s inclusion. Saudi Arabia and Iran, in order to contain conflict and to ensure; that it ends up being short and as shallow as possible, need to revitalize the lessons of the ‘original Cold War.’ United States and Soviet Union despite their sustained rivalry developed a variety of mechanism for escalation and risk management. This was undertaken without foregoing their core national interests and ideologies. The leadership understood that there was ‘wisdom in engaging’ rather than isolating the other. The approach is more relevant today in the era of globalization than it was in those years. “Geo-economics must replace geopolitics” as the focal Saudi-Iranian approach in order to reach a ‘non-zero sum situation.’

Religious and political ideology plays an important role in the foreign policy between Riyadh and Tehran. The two offer competing ideologies and political model with a strong desire for strategic and geopolitical supremacy. The standoff, experts believe is also the result of the desire and aspirations of the two, for political leadership in the Islamic world. The conflict is not the result of alleged schism between Shia and Sunni school of Islam, but is rather a byproduct of centuries’ political and religious contestation that existed between empires and is now manifested into politics of these modern states.

Diplomacy is integral to the Middle East cold war. Since establishing relations in 1929, the two have had their ups and downs. In the years of the Shah, relations began to take the turn for worse when Shah’s ‘hegemonic desires’ and Saudi Arabia’s desire not to accept Iran predominant role in the Gulf and beyond. Nevertheless, relations remained intact at least diplomatically despite severity of incidents such as Gunboat coercion and the oil wars.

Conclusion

Wars have recognizable beginnings and they comprise of direct fighting between the adversaries with armistices and peace treaties as their conclusive ends. However, a Cold war has none of these characteristics, in words of Walter Lippman, “it brings neither peace nor honour to those who wage it.” The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has “spillover effects” and repercussions beyond the region. States such as those in the West, and Pakistan in particular close in proximity to the two have had a tough time “balancing” their relations. A careful, delicate and pragmatic approach needs to be adopted on part of statesmen, taking into account the opportunities and challenges arising from a “Cold War” need to be taken into account. Media on both sides has an important role to play in patching up the hostilities by upholding ethical standards and avoiding propagandist contest to avoid further aggravation of the conflict. 

Zaeem Hassan Mehmood, is an alumnus of National Defence University, Islamabad. He is serving as Research Associate at National Centre for Maritime Policy Research (NCMPR)

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Middle East

Americans return to Syria for oil

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Soon after the adoption of the Russian-Turkish Memorandum on Syria, President Trump, known for his “consistency” in decision-making, made it clear that he had no intention of withdrawing US troops, which had already been moved to Iraq, from the east of Syria. The reason for the US forces to stay on is the need to protect the local oil reserves against the “Islamic State” (which is prohibited in the Russian Federation). The American president even reflected on which company should be contracted to produce Syrian oil, eventually opting for ExxonMobil (who else!).

The Pentagon spoke to this effect as well, in more concrete terms. The oil of northeast Syria will go to the allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), – said US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, adding: “We want to make sure that the SDF have access to these resources, in order to guard prisons and arm their own units . Our mission is to ensure the safety of the deposits.” When asked by reporters whether Syrian and Russian forces would have access to these resources, Esper answered in the negative. Thus, the United States has yet again demonstrated that they do not deem themselves bound by international law. At the same time, they confirmed the American so-called “businesslike” approach to international problems.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly insisted that Syrian oil should belong to the Syrian people. Speaking at a press conference following the recent meeting with Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Sergey Lavrov said: the United States plans to protect Syrian oil from Syria.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the Americans found it normal to trade in Syrian oil before. Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, the United States extracts oil using de facto “contraband” equipment that was brought on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic bypassing American sanctions. According to the Russian military, revenue from these transactions exceeds $ 30 million per month.

Compared to neighbors, Syria is far from an “oil giant.” Its developed reserves amount to about 2.5 billion barrels, while Saudi Arabia has reserves of 268 billion, Iran – 158 billion, Iraq – 144 billion, Kuwait – 104 billion, UAE – 98 billion barrels. Oil reserves in Syria are not that abundant for the US to “cling” to them. So what’s the matter?

Only a fraction of oil reserves are located on the territory liberated by the Syrian army and its allies, the lion’s share of the reserves is controlled by SDF units (and the Americans, of course). By means of depriving Damascus of oil revenues, which made a major source of the country’s pre-war budget, Washington hopes to weaken Syria’s resistance. In addition, the United States won’t stop short of supporting the Kurdish state. By “gifting” Syrian oil to their political protégés, the Americans encourage the Kurds to refrain from making an alliance with Damascus and continue to act as a counterweight to Turkey and Russia and play the role of an anti-Iranian bastion.

It’s the Americans themselves who will buy this oil. In all likelihood, they will buy it cheap. “I want to bring our soldiers back home, but I want oil too. I’m a civilian, I don’t understand why the war in Iraq was needed at all. If my people go to Iraq, let them at least keep the oil,” – Donald Trump shared his thoughts not so long ago,  criticizing the policies of his predecessors. Bashar al-Assad responded by describing Trump as “the best American president ever” because he is the most transparent and honest.” “He says he wants oil, and that’s absolutely true – it’s  American policy,” –  the Syrian leader concluded.

Simultaneously, while maintaining control of the oil fields, the Americans continue to “punish” Ankara for its “excessive” independence in international affairs. After all, they are not going to pump stolen oil through Turkey, which is trying hard to become the southern energy hub for Europe.

Furthermore, the majority of oil-bearing regions in Syria are populated by Arabs, rather than Kurds. Peshmerga captured the fields during the struggle against the Islamic State, prohibited in Russia. Now, should the Americans change their minds about the “protection” of the oil reserves, they will use this to “explain” their yet another betrayal to the Kurds.

In all likelihood, there will be no serious armed clashes over Syrian oil. The problem could be solved through reaching a power-sharing agreement between Damascus and the Kurds, which means dividing the powers between the central government and the local authorities. The Constitutional Committee, which is currently in session in Geneva, could play an important role to achieve this but for the fact that neither Ankara nor Damascus wants the Committee to comprise representatives of the SDF – a bloc that de facto controls the north-east of the country. As a result, Hikmat Habib the Executive Committee of the Assembly of Democratic Syria said: the outcomes of the Geneva meeting will not mean anything “for the people of northern and eastern Syria” (Kurds – A.I.).

However, Damascus and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been taking  steps towards each other: after the start of another Turkish military operation, the Kurds allowed Syrian troops to enter the territory under their control, while Damascus proposed that peshmerga should become part of the Syrian army. As it happens, chances to maintain the territorial integrity of the country are there for grabs.

From our partner International Affairs

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US-Iran confrontation amid Lebanon, Iraq protests

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The U.S welcomes to spread uprising to Iran and weakening Iran`s influence in Lebanon and Iraq, whereas Iran seeks up political stability in the two countries.

Enormous antigovernment demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon have been the spotlight around the world since last month. People in the two countries are dissatisfied concerning socio-economic problems include mismanagement in urban services, recession, governmental corruption, increasing unemployment, and growing injustice. Both countries have a common factor. Iran is the only country that has an important influence on their governments. So, the country has followed the related happenings carefully.

A few days after the protests, Iranian officials expressed their position. The first man was Amir Abdollahian, who is the special assistant to the speaker of Iran`s parliament. He wrote in his Instagram Page that “yesterday in Yemen, the United States and Saudi Arabia forced the prime minister to resign and failed, as they are currently struggling in quagmire of Yemen” he said then. “Today in Lebanon and Iraq, they also launched the same project of chaos and destroying governments that the new copy of political terrorism will undoubtedly fail.”

But Iran`s president and foreign minister have not said anything about the crisis, although recently Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed the U.S and its allies for spreading “insecurity and turmoil” in Iraq and Lebanon, urging anti-government protesters in both countries to seek changes in a lawful way.

“Their people also have to know that although they have legitimate demands, those demands can be met only through the framework of legal structures,” he added.

In fact, Iraq and Lebanon are very sensitive for Iran. Iraq has a long border with the country and Hezbollah as a proxy force in the south of Lebanon is its security border along Israel. So, any changes in both can be hazardous for Iran`s interests because the country has an effective position in their governing body structures.

On the other side, the U.S has conducted full support to protesters especially in Iraq where some protesters have stated slogans against Iran`s intervention. Some protesters in Karbala attacked Iran`s consulate. Although the socio-economic is the main problem of Iraqis, Iran`s influence had been a side issue and an interesting subject for critics of the Islamic regime.

Iraq`s prime minister has agreed to resign as well as Saad Hariri resigned in Lebanon. In the meantime, governmental media of Iran have attempted to portray that any resign or government changing is a wrong solution for two countries. Just as Seyed Hasan Nasrollah, leader of Hezbollah had disagreed with Hariri`s resign but the U.S has supported to form a new government in Lebanon and Iraq. 

The U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on “Lebanon’s political leaders to urgently facilitate the formation of a new government that can build a stable, prosperous, and secure Lebanon that is responsive to the needs of its citizens.”

Pompeo also sent a message about to accountability necessity of government concerning killed people amid protests in Iraq, unlike Iran that wants to abate the chaos.     

U.S Secretary of State said the Iraqi government’s investigation into the violence in early October “lacked sufficient credibility” and that “the Iraqi people deserve genuine accountability and justice.”

After that, Iranians rail against U.S. Brigadier General Hossein Nejat, who is the deputy of the I.R.G.C`s chief said, “The U.S has invested in the social faults in Iraq and Lebanon.” Still, he said “this is America sedition”

“From a long time ago, Americans had brought many persons from Iraq to America for training, and they formed extensive social media. The U.S wants Iraq to be insecurity intensively until a dictator comes and catches the power,” he added.

Also Mohammad Ali Movahhedi Kermani, Tehran’s provisional Friday prayers leader said that “Based on the available information, the U.S ambassador to Iraq has openly backed the ongoing violence in Iraq and has called on Iraqi police to let such behaviors continue.

Iran has exported its Islamic ideology to some countries in the region such as Iraq and Lebanon in years ago. But now, the economic problems are the most important subject for people of the two countries. That`s why one protester told Foreign Policy that “hungry has no religion.” This sentence has the same meaning Imam Ali`s hadith, Shias’ first Imam that “the poverty is bigger death.” 

Simply put, ideology is not working without money and social welfare. Now, Iran is under tough sanctions by America and its people have economic problems with high-level inflation. But the U.S and its allies have more chance to increase influence in two countries in terms of the economic situation. The U.S has aided $1.5 billion to Lebanon`s army since 2005. But according to the WSJ, the financial assistance by the U.S has stopped recently to Lebanon due to Israel`s pressure. WSJ wrote, “The Trump Administration has suspended security assistance to Lebanon, congressional officials said, including more than $100 million for the Lebanese armed forces.”

Also, a meeting held between United States Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In this negotiation, Netanyahu complained that Iran was financing new missile-development activities inside Lebanon for the Hezbollah militant movement.

Several Israeli news organizations reported this week that Mr. Netanyahu has asked government officials to urge allied capitals to impose conditions on their aid to Lebanon to ensure Lebanese officials clamp down on the missile-development activities—one possible reason for a U.S. funding suspension.

In related news, Saudi Arabia as a close ally of The U.S recently has suspended the assistance to Lebanon to weakening the Hezbollah.

“In a way, you bail out Lebanon, you bail out Hezbollah,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, the political science professor at Kuwait University, according to Daily Star.

One Gulf official, who declined to be identified by name when talking about sensitive foreign policy, “Prime Minister Saad Hariri had refused financial help to avoid money going to Hezbollah via the government,” the Daily Star reported too.

Based on some reports, America has suggested rebuilding oil and power Iraq`s facilities instead of Iraq`s companionship with sanctions against Iran. So, Lebanon and Iraq are under economic pressure and both need foreign aids, whereas Iran now has a severe budget shortage. This situation can be a factor to reduce Iran`s influence compared to the U.S in two countries after uprisings.

Analysts said the power-sharing system in the two countries is very important for Iran because the Shiite has a high position currently. Both have different religions and sects. In Iraq, the prime minister is Shiite. Also in Lebanon based on the agreement of 1989, the power divided into religion and sects, such that parliament speaker must be a Shiite Muslim. The current condition is acceptable by Iran because Shia’s power is insured. But protests now are not examples of deep sectarian divisions in two countries. For the first time, the protesters seek the end of sectarian power and power-sharing system. They want to root out corruption by a new government. So, the unprecedented protests can be dangerous for Iran`s investments in the Shiite groups in the region. Due to America’s attempts and some slogans in protests against Iran, it is possible the power of Shiite`s groups in the two countries will be abated finally. 

In fact, The U.S wants the uprising will extend to Iran because Iranians are in the same situation in terms of economic problems, just as Iran`s government is wary about protests infectious power. If Iran`s Shiite allies like Hezbollah and Amal in Lebanon and Al-Hashd Ash-Shabi in Iraq be able to separate Shias from other protesters, its spread range will reduce.

The U.S welcomes to spread uprising to Iran and weakening Iran`s influence in Lebanon and Iraq, whereas Iran seeks up political stability in the two countries. Iran also attempts to say the U.S is behind the protests and insecurity in the two countries is their work.

Lately, Hossein Shariatmadari, the representative of supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and editor chief of the conservative Kayhan newspaper, wrote addressed to Iraqis that “seize the American and Saudi embassies.”

Some suggested that President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has been almost defeated because Iran has not come to the negotiation table so far, so perhaps the protests in Lebanon and Iraq lead to Iran’s surrender.

Nowadays, Iraqis and Lebanon`s people seek up a better future by changing the political structures in their countries. Thinking to welfare, removing the corrupted politicians and protecting their countries from any foreign interference. But amid the protests, the confrontation has begun in two countries between America and Iran but would not finish simply.

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The narrative approach of Lebanon’s uprising

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In Social Politics, intellectuals and scholars are surely defined political protestation as new concept of a social group that operates action together to obtain a political and social outcomes in terms of contemporary democracies, Indeed, some have included currently in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and Sudan as a continuation of what happened at the end of 2010 and early 2011 in Egypt and Tunisia, and the events of proxy war in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, or somewhere else as part of the American creative disorder delusively labeled the Arab Spring.

Truly speaking, the current demonstrations in Lebanon are similarly shaped in a form of previous Arab anti-government uprisings scenario due to decisions that are seen as unfair socially and politically taking place within the constitutional process of people interest conciliated by political institutions at affecting public and Scio-cultural processes, which therefore challenge the status quo of which makes what happens in these states out of chaos of the “Arab Spring”, even for the current overturning demonstrations, we find divergences in each state has its own Arab spring based on its social perspective.

For Lebanon, the people demonstration for the second week, provoked by ineffective  of government laws management and unfair situation of handling peoples social needs that affect the standard of million citizens suffering from a serious depreciation in life productivity, hides deep and complicated causes and has several Lebanese specificities and approaches:

First, The sectarian approach, where the masses are clear in their demands to overthrow sectarianism and change all status of the political class, the protestation initiate a auspice of a outbreak against the sectarian system of all sects and indicates that sectarianism rolling party is fully responsible for impoverishing Lebanon’s people and corruption of state institutions and detriment of political standing.

Second, The absence of Islamic party from the scene, might be invisible but Hezbollah and other Islamist groups are highly cautious about the seriousness of out breaking and imperils of other external involved parties pushed to change the current government and destabilized the regime, Therefore, there are unknown reports saying that this uprising in Lebanon is driven by Hezbollah group.

Third, The protestors stick to their commitment to democratic principles and fight all injustice and grievance in the civil state based on citizenship. Besides, despite the absence of clear international stands, particularly from Washington and the West, which is taking place in Lebanon, the Lebanese geopolitics enhances fears of the ability of the Lebanese people to distance themselves from outside interference.

The fourth, The fundamental fuss is not foreign intervention or interference of states’ military, but rather the armed party militias related to the government coalition, whether it is Hezbollah or Christian parties. These militias are much powerful than the Lebanese army itself and it could demount the structure of the army and might provoke a proxy war.

In addition, as a result of these frequent Lebanese popular uprising occurrence is the accumulations of combining the deterioration of the weak economic circumstances with the irresponsible political experience of Lebanese political system and the crisis of democratic strategies of portions or consensus among the sects, rather than a prolonging the disorder of the Arab Spring. In the past decades, Lebanon has seen several bloody uprisings as a form of proxy war in 1958 and 1975 until the Taif Conference 1989.

It is understandable that what is happening in Lebanon or even the Arab Middle East region is based on mal-political calculations in resolving the current economic grievances and socio-cultural standards. it is clear to perceive the root of the Lebanese sectarian system which is based on confessionalism power-sharing system and the historical setting of its functioning, and before the digression came in the discourse of defining the political sectarianism as subjective context it is “an exchange of social-political system, focus on the handling of the individual part of the religious group in his political positions, and formed as sectarianism political sect of the state “.The Lebanese state emerged in 1920. unlike the rest of the Arab states from the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and as Britain’s delegate to Palestine committed itself to the Balfour Declaration that grants a state to the Jews in Palestine, Also France committed itself to make Lebanon as a sole for Christians, especially the Maronites, who constituted the majority of the population. So the separation or portion in several positions six for Christians and five for Muslims and the rest of the religious sects. Thus, the unwritten legislative charter agreed in 1943 was based on sectarian sharing power politics between Muslims and Christians within the constitutional and for the rest of the high ranking positions, with the head of state is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the House of Representatives a Shiite Muslim.

Accordingly, At the 1989 Taif conference, which came after the proxy war, there was unsubstantial change that was recognized to be fifty per cent for each party within Lebanon the parliament, with the extension of the sectarian dominance and covenants to overcome it to change Lebanon from a sectarian democracy status based on portions into a modern democracy that blackout sectarianism, but this did not Politicalized sectarianism in order to be reinforced by a social sectarianism that was overtaken by all modern societies. Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.

This is quite superficial with regards to the past decades, the Status of Lebanon was able to extend a formula of inter-communal coexistence within the framework of so-called “sectarian democracy”, As a matter of fact,  the outbreak of the 1975 proxy war, and with the exception of the events of 1958, Lebanon was qualified to live in stability with economic and cultural prosperity and more importantly openness to all states of the world. Therefore, the great Palestinian refugee in the camps resulting from the 1948 war did not confuse the internal political balances.

With a new chapter turned in this formula of sectarian power-sharing system, the sectarian quota democracy creating a transitional step through the democracy of Lebanon citizenship that denies sectarianism and power-sharing which enhancing the confessionalism political system in accordance with to the sectarian representatives of the communities. this sharing power formula becomes the property or the estate of the confessionalism sect, especially its high ranking men, and the appointed Politicians have chosen by the sect to sustain in their positions without accountability or responsibility, though each sect has become like a state within a state, with its areas of influence and armed militias, these sects can maintain foreign relations as the legitimate state symbolized protecting entity of sectarianism, and attempts to inclusive development were confronted with the interests of communities and external alliances, as the law of recognized state of Lebanon was absent due to mediation and interventions of the sectarian communities, but other non confessionalism sect their people and families, became living on the ounce left by sectarian quotas.

In fact, what makes Lebanon uprising different and more fascinating from other the Arab movements is that it is so soft that the beauty of the Lebanese women who suddenly participated has forgotten the sameness of some outbreaks, and sometimes even covered the demands of the revolutionary street in Beirut communities and the rest of the cities, and the political details operating the movement. Making many Arab observers unconcerned with Saad Hariri’s proposals, eager only for the continuation of the Lebanese revolution.

As noted, The demonstrations in the communities and streets were an opening for Lebanese women to demonstrate their strength and ability to influence not only their violent and unbreakable hardness, or their confrontation with the military, but also the dominance of their intellectualism statements, their sedition, their beauty, and their nationalism. Sometimes, with her very realistic comments, she complains to the media how corruption has deprived her of the better social life that this beauty, which God has given for her, asked for fair political, social and better economic conditions.

Though controversial, The woman’s moves into the streets to protest is evidence that the outbreaks in Lebanon have become more than a necessity, and that it is a consistent decision among the Lebanese. Women, in general, are characterized by conservatism and tranquility. When women decide to strike against irresponsible political and social conditions, it means that the crisis is really true, and to that extreme, in Lebanon uprising, women should show to the world that women have the right to express their political and social attitudes towards stimulating protest among the general public.

To sum up, as a cliché says, where there’s a will, there’s a way. the outbreaks who took to the streets of Lebanese cities may be qualified to overthrow the existing legitimate government and circumstances may change to constitutional rules. The upset and rejection of sectarianism, although as noble goal, it needs a radical change in the structure and socio-cultural of Lebanese society, and if the Lebanese are committed to their democratic behavior to overthrow political sectarianism, Then this will be a great victory for the Lebanese people and will pave the way for eradicating political and sectarian confessionalism throughout the Arab world, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

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