September marks the seventh anniversary of the war between Iran and Iraq. It now ranks as the longest inter-state military conflict in the Middle East in this century. It has also been the most costly in terms of human lives lost, property destroyed and numbers of people uprooted from their homes. Although there are few accurate statistics on the destructive effects of the war, estimated deaths include some 300,000 Iranians and about 100,000 Iraqis, and at least an equal number wounded. The destruction of homes, factories and critical infrastructure in southeastern Iraq and southwestern Iran exceeds $400 billion. At least 1.5 million persons have fled their homes since 1980, mostly Iranians from the cities of Khuzestan. More recently, thousands of Iraqis have left the Basra area.

The war is a total one. Both Iran and Iraq have committed fully their manpower and economic and monetary resources to prosecute the conflict. Both countries have depended heavily upon oil revenues to finance their war efforts. Thus, each country has sought to interfere with the petroleum exports of its opponent as part of its strategy to win the war. Neither side has been successful in this effort to date. Immediately after the outbreak of the war, Iran was able to cut off all Iraqi exports via the Persian Gulf ports; eventually, Iraq circumvented the Iranian blockade by using oil pipelines traversing Turkey and Saudi Arabia. For its part, Iraq has carried out frequent bombing raids upon Iranian oil production and loading facilities; these have caused temporary setbacks, but have failed to halt Iranian exports.

To analyze the war’s impact upon the domestic and internaional politics of Iran, it is important to keep in mind that even as the Iranian leaders have been prosecuting the war, they also have been trying to consolidate their revolution. This has meant establishing the political institutions of the Islamic Republic and setting up procedures for their smooth functioning. The war has both facilitated and impeded that process. It has permitted the government to legitimate itself as the defender of the national territory. The regime has been able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of young men to fight by appealing to nationalism; it also has persuaded millions of Iranians to comply with extraordinary wartime measures such as food rationing. But the war has also impeded the process of consolidation by drawing away resources required for badly needed social projects.

Locus of Authority

The political institutions of the Islamic Republic were created soon after the 1979 revolution and embodied in the constitution which was approved by popular referendum in December of that year. The objective of the principal institutions — the office of chief spiritual-political guide (faqih), the presidency and the assembly (majlis) — has been to assure continued control of the government by the Shi‘i Muslim clergy. During the past seven years, the system of clerical government has largely been consolidated. Milestones include the second national elections for the 270-seat majlis in 1984, (elections for the third majlis will be held in the winter of 1988); the reelection of Hojjat ol-Islam Ali Khamenei to a second term as president in 1985; the appointment and confirmation in 1985 of Mir-Hossein Mousavi to a second tenure as prime minister; and the announcement, also in 1985, that the special Council of Experts had designated Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri as the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini as faqih.

The current political leaders have all served in office sufficiently long to provide the institutions with both continuity and stability. In addition to the above named persons, these include Hojjat ol-Islam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the elected speaker of the majlis, and Ayatollah Abol-Karim Mousavi Ardabili, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. These men are part of a political elite, dominated by the clergy but also including prominent lay technocrats, who share a particular vision of how an Islamic government should be organized. Although this political elite has appeared generally unified in accepting the basic political institutions, there has been considerable diversity of views concerning questions of centralization of authority and economic policy. Preoccupation with the war has affected the course of debate on these issues.

The question of centralized versus decentralized political power has bedeviled Iran’s rulers since the earliest days of the revolution. President Khamenei, Prime Minister Mousavi and most of the cabinet ministers have been the principal champions of concentrating political decision-making authority in the central government based in Tehran. They believe that the gains of the revolution can be preserved best in the long run if the institutions of the central government are strengthened.

Provincial political leaders have been among those most determined to resist the recentralization of governmental authority. The devolution of power that occurred as a result of the revolution enhanced their political status, and these local and regional leaders have been reluctant to yield back to Tehran any of their powers. Several influential members of the majlis and the Council of Guardians, the body that reviews all legislation and has veto power over any laws that are judged as not in conformity with Islam, have allied themselves with provincial leaders in opposing plans to strengthen the central government. Among the important national political leaders who have supported continued dispersion of governmental authority is Hojjat ol-Islam Mousavi Khoeiniha, the current state prosecutor-general who initially acquired prominence as the spiritual leader of the students who seized the American embassy in 1979 and held its personnel hostage for nearly 15 months. Because of the significant influence of this alliance of national and regional elites, the recentralizing efforts of the Musavi government have not been entirely successful. The central government has been able to reassert its authority over certain ministries such as defense and education, but decentralized decision-making has continued to be characteristic of ministries such as agriculture and justice. In addition, there are myriad autonomous agencies, the most notable of which are the komitehs and the Foundation for the Oppressed, that have generally operated free of central government oversight.

The war with Iraq has been used by Prime Minister Mousavi to justify greater centralization. Generally, the government has effectively reasserted control over matters that pertain directly to the war effort, such as defense and oil policy, industrial production and foreign imports. This has not been a smooth process, as the experience of the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) illustrates. Originally organized in 1979 out of the scores of private militias that had sprung up to defend the revolution, the Revolutionary Guards soon came to rival the regular army. The war encouraged major growth of the Revolutionary Guards, but initially this organization continued to act autonomously of any ministry and even planned military strategy independently of the army. Control of the Revolutionary Guards was diffuse, with local units answering to various provincial clerical leaders. By persistently arguing the case that overall military coordination was necessary for successful prosecution of the war, the government gradually brought the Guards under its control through the expedient of transforming the organization into a separate ministry.

Property and Politics

Economic issues have been even more contentious. Because the war has affected the economy so significantly, the government has felt compelled to intervene to assure a desirable allocation of resources between the military and civilian sectors. Efforts to exercise control in the economic sphere have occasioned spirited debate. In the United States and Western Europe, this debate often has been interpreted — erroneously — as a left-right split. The media explanation portrays those who favor government intervention in the economy — the “radicals” — as being in favor of socialist, even Marxist, policies and describes those who oppose government intervention in the economy as “moderates.” [1] It needs to be emphasized that the economic debate in Iran is not an issue of socialism versus capitalism. On the contrary, the political elite is unified in the belief that Islam honors private property and it is the duty of an Islamic government to protect it. Some members of the elite also believe, however, that an Islamic government is obligated to ensure that the interests of any one individual or group do not harm the overall interests of the whole community. They argue that the accumulation of private property as practiced in the capitalist West can be detrimental to society. To prevent this, an Islamic government should regulate private property.

Attitudes regarding private property derive from the social origins of Iran’s new rulers. Whether clergy or laymen, they tend to be members of the traditional middle class of bazaar merchants, small-scale entrepreneurs, civil servants and skilled craftsmen. For the most part, they represent the views and values of small businessmen, the classic petit bourgeoisie, known in Iran as bazaaris. The bazaaris, like small businessmen in many other societies, tend to be suspicious of large-scale capital investors. Generally, they prefer a government that can protect them from the competition of large-scale capitalists. In certain respects, the government of Prime Minister Mousavi has been such a government. For even while it proceeded with the nationalization of large factories, it simultaneously provided millions of rials of interest-free loans to individuals to invest in small businesses.

Although government policies designed to encourage investment and economic development have benefited the bazaaris, official efforts to regulate prices, ration goods, and control foreign trade generally have not been well received. This has been even more true for wealthy financiers, industrialists and large-scale merchants. This wealthy class has been more adversely affected by the government’s economic policies than has any other group. While many of the rich have left Iran to live in exile, significant numbers have remained in the country in order to protect as much of their property as possible. The sincerely religious among them, as well as the “born-again” Muslims, have allied with those members of the political elite who oppose government intervention in economic matters. Thus, those issues of most concern to the wealthy — land expropriation, nationalization of large-scale industries and regulation of foreign trade — have been the very ones that have occasioned the most intense debate.

The debate over economic policies has been most clearly articulated in the two main rival newspapers, Jomhouri-ye Islami and Resalat. The first, originally the organ of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), has consistently expressed the pro-interventionist line of Mousavi’s government. Jomhouri-ye Islami also has supported tightening central authority over political institutions, although not all supporters of state economic intervention are necessarily advocates of centralization. Hojjat ol-Islam Khoeiniha, for example, has been one of the most vocal advocates of state intervention in the economy, especially with respect to expropriating the agricultural estates of large landowners. At the same time, however, he has been a vigorous champion of maintaining the autonomy of revolutionary organizations from the state. Resalat, whose publisher and editor are, respectively, cleric Ahmad Azari-Qommi and layperson Jalal al-Din Farsi, has frequently and bitterly attacked the government’s attempts to interfere in the economy. Farsi has even accused ministers who advocate state economic intervention of being “opportunists” and suggested that they are ignorant of the fundamental principles of Islamic law. [2] Both Farsi and Azari-Qommi are also members of the majlis, where they lead a large bloc of deputies that has opposed many of the government’s economic programs.

This faction has supporters throughout the government. Consequently it has been able to mitigate the impact of some programs and even prevent implementation of others, most notably a comprehensive land reform bill. Significantly, the ruling IRP also comprised both these factions. By 1986, the IRP had become so polarized that the often acrimonious disputes between these factions impaired its effectiveness. Probably the persistent debate over economic issues had become more intense on account of the drastic decline in government revenues beginning in November 1985, when the international price of oil fell by some 60 percent. This unanticipated financial shortfall forced the government to consider even more stringent economic regulatory measures, and aroused even more opposition from opponents of state intervention. Concerned that the open factionalism of the party was harmful to the government, President Ali Khamenei, who was also the IRP’s secretary-general, and IRP Central Committee member Rafsanjani co-signed a letter to Khomeini in June requesting his approval for the dissolution of the party. [3]

The Opposition in Exile

Factionalism within the political elite should not be confused with opposition to the government. While the political elite is divided over economic policy issues, and to a lesser extent over the question of centralized versus decentralized political control, the elite as a group supports the basic principles and institutions of the Islamic Republic. It is also significant that Khomeini himself has never unambiguously sided with either faction, but rather has consistently used his influence to urge moderation and compromise. His designated successor, Montazeri, apparently aspires to performing a similar role and has so far resisted identification with either faction.

Among the overwhelming majority of Iranians who are not part of the political elite, attitudes toward the government and its policies have been more difficult to assess. Organized opposition to the form of government — that is, to the theocracy established according to the 1979 constitution — is not tolerated. The main loyal opposition party, the Iran Freedom Movement of former prime minster Mehdi Bazargan, is weak and ineffective.

The primary opposition to the government is organized outside of the country. Iranian expatriates have established numerous anti-government groups representing a diversity of views ranging from the restoration of the monarchy to republican secularists, Islamists, and ethnic minority groups seeking greater autonomy from central government control. The most active of these groups has been the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an Islamist group that espouses some socialistic principles. It was formed prior to the revolution as a guerrilla group advocating the armed overthrow of the monarchy. In June 1981, the Mojahedin led an unsuccessful uprising against the new government. It has since been able to organize demonstrations in various cities in the United States and Europe and has claimed responsibility for numerous acts of sabotage and terrorism carried out in Iran.

Mojahedin leader Masoud Rajavi fled to France after the government brutally suppressed the organization. There its headquarters remained for five years. In June 1986, under pressure from the French government which was attempting to normalize relations with Tehran, Mojahedin moved its headquarters to Baghdad. From its new base the Mojahedin has cooperated with the government of Iraq in fighting against Tehran. It established training camps in the mountains along the Iran-Iraq border and claims to have fought several battles with units of the Revolutionary Guards. In June 1987, the Mojahedin announced a new phase in its anti-government struggle, with the formation of a National Army of Liberation to train any Iranians who wanted to help overthrow the government of the Islamic Republic.

The Mojahedin seems to have attracted more support both inside and outside of Iran than any of the other externally based opposition groups. Nevertheless, it has failed to achieve the broad-based mass appeal that its leaders have claimed. There are several reasons why the Mojahedin’s appeal, while significant, has remained limited. First, as an organization based upon Shi‘i Islam, the Mojahedin recruits from and appeals to the same constituency as does the political elite — that is, the religiously conscious bazaar middle class. The Mojahedin asserts that its interpretation of Shi‘i dogma is more liberal on such issues as women’s rights, dissent, and human rights. More significantly, the Mojahedin rejects the notion that a believer needs to emulate a preeminent Shi‘i cleric as a spiritual guide or political leader. In effect, the Mojahedin proposes an alternative version of an Islamic Republic, one in which believers do not need clerical intermediaries and non-Shi‘is have more protection. The majority of pious Shi‘is, however, seem to accept the necessity of clerical intermediaries; apparently they have accepted the condemnation of Khomeini and other Shi‘i clergy that the Mojahedin is an organization of religious hypocrites.

The Mojahedin’s use of terrorism is a second factor that has adversely affected its appeal. Although the group claims that the assassinations and bombings undertaken by its guerrillas are acts of revenge against “proven enemies of the people,” the popular perception seems to be that such incidents are senseless acts of violence. A third blemish on the Mojahedin’s image was Rajavi’s marriage in 1985 to Maryam Azodanlu, soon after she was divorced from Rajavi’s close friend and political associate, Abrishamschi. This marriage was offensive to pious Iranians who detected the odor of wife swapping. The press of the Islamic Republic exploited the marriage as illustrating the moral degeneracy of the “religious hypocrites.”

A fourth reason the Mojahedin’s popular appeal has remained restricted has been its establishment of new headquarters in Iraq. While this move was ostensibly made to assist the Mojahedin in carrying out its anti-government campaign, Tehran has cited this development as proving the Mojahedin is not only a godless, corrupt organization that conducts acts of terrorism against the Iranian people, but also one that has betrayed the nation while it is at war with an enemy. The Mojahedin itself has seemed insensitive to how its claims of killing the “suppressive agents” of Khomeini have been perceived. Since the victims of Mojahedin attacks have been the sons, brothers, and husbands of the very people whom the guerrilla group has claimed to be liberating, it has been difficult to establish its credibility as a patriotic organization. An astute small-town teacher aptly summed up one view of the Mojahedin from inside Iran: “The murder of the Revolutionary Guards who have risked their lives on the war front defending our country only brings dishonor to the killers.” [4]

None of the other opposition organizations have anywhere near the level of activity of the Mojahedin. The Marxist left is not a force to reckon with at present, as it is divided into at least 12 different factions. The monarchists, who also are divided into several rival groups, were shaken by scandal in November 1986 when a disgruntled supporter of one faction revealed to a Washington Post reporter that several of the groups had received funds and other support from the CIA. The Constitutional Monarchists, under the leadership of former royalist prime minister Ali Amini, allegedly received a subsidy of $100,000 per month from 1982 up to the publication of the article. Amini’s group also obtained from the CIA a transmitter that had been used in October 1986 to broadcast into Iran a brief videotaped speech by the 26-year old son of the former Shah. [5] The report about CIA-monarchist relations ironically came in the midst of revelations about the secret United States arms sales to Iran. The coincidence of these revelations served to undermine further the already fragile reputation of the monarchists.

The once restless ethnic minorities have also been subdued and their organizations driven underground or into foreign exile. The largest of the disaffected minorities are the Kurds, whose fighters occupied the main cities and towns of Iranian Kurdistan immediately after the revolution. The region is now effectively controlled by central government forces. Since the spring of 1986 Kurdish guerrillas have only been able to mount sporadic hit-and-run attacks from across the Iraqi and Turkish borders. Even this activity has become difficult, because the Iraqi Kurdish group that had supported the Iranian Kurds, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has been cooperating since early 1987 with its former rival, Idriss Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which in turn has been allied with the Iranian government since 1980.

It seems doubtful that any of the externally based Iranian opposition movements can reverse their current ineffectiveness in the near future. The war with Iraq is the main Achilles’ heel of the opposition. Attacks against the Islamic Republic permit the government to paint the opposition fairly easily with the brush of treason.

Exporting Revolution

The political leaders of Iran took power as a result of a revolution. Whether members of the Shi‘i clergy or laypersons, these leaders shared a common view about the revolution as having been successful on account of their personal commitment to certain religious values. They also believed that their example of overthrowing tyranny could be followed in other countries, especially those where a majority of the population was Muslim. Accordingly, these leaders were motivated to teach their lessons to other peoples whom they saw as oppressed, as they had been under the Shah. The political elite has perceived the export of revolution in two different ways: to show by example and to show by deed. Although the leaders have exhibited consistent haste in claiming credit for inspiring numerous anti-government activities in various countries since 1979, in practice preoccupation with the Gulf war has forced the Iranians to depend upon example as the only practical means of exporting revolution.

The war with Iraq and the export of revolution have always been closely related. The rhetoric about exporting revolution was one factor that induced Saddam Hussein to invade Iran. The secularist Baath Party had long been resented by the Shi‘i clergy of Iraq, which had relatively close ties with the clergy of Iran. Furthermore, Khomeini’s 13-year residence in the Iraqi Shi‘i pilgrimage and theological center of Najaf coincided with a period of intense hostility between the Iraqi government and the Shi‘i clergy. It was perhaps inevitable that the new revolutionary government would champion the cause of the “repressed Muslims” of Iraq. The Iranian example did exert a powerful influence on at least a few Iraqi Shi‘is. The government of Saddam Hussein reacted to the nascent religious movement by arresting and executing some of the most prominent of the Shi‘i clergy. [6] Iran responded with Arabic-language broadcasts calling upon the Iraqi people to rise up against their government.

Ever since the war began, an Iranian litmus test for whether or not a government is tyrannical has been the degree of support it has provided Iraq’s war effort. Thus, the government of Kuwait, which has extended several billions of dollars in loans to Iraq, has been persistently described as anti-Islamic, and Iran has exhorted the people of Kuwait to overthrow it. Kuwait was bombed “accidentally” earlier in the war, and Iran has attacked its ships in retaliation for Iraqi attacks upon Iranian tankers. After failing at the beginning of this year to get its venue changed, Iran refused to attend the Islamic Conference Organization meeting in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti effort to get the superpowers involved in the protection of its oil tankers is part of a strategy of countermeasures against the perceived threat of Iran and its revolution.

Initially, Iran regarded not just Kuwait but all the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf as being ruled by un-Islamic governments. Indeed, the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was prompted in part out of Arab fears of Iran. Iran’s relations with the other members of the GCC, however, have not been characterized by the same degree of strain as has been evident in Iranian-Kuwaiti relations. Iran, in fact, has actually maintained relatively correct relations with Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and especially the United Arab Emirates. This de facto abandonment of an activist policy of exporting revolution has been part of a conscious effort to encourage Arab countries to stop providing overt assistance to Iraq.

For their part, the GCC countries have also tried to be circumspect in their dealings with Iran. Saudi Arabia, for example, dispatched its foreign minister on a first-ever trip to the Islamic Republic in the summer of 1986, and the two countries have been cooperating on oil production and pricing policies ever since. Oman, whose government Iran had bitterly castigated in the early post-revolutionary years, also sent its foreign minister on a state visit to Tehran in May of this year during the crisis over US plans to reflag Kuwaiti vessels.

Iran’s most important regional ally has been Syria. Ironically, this is also the one country where a mass uprising claiming inspiration from the Iranian example has taken place. The Muslim Brothers, however, failed to obtain any Iranian support in its struggle against the regime of Hafiz al-Asad in 1981-1982. On the contrary, Iranian leaders gratuitously condemned the uprising against the secular Syrian regime, and did not protest publicly the brutal repression of the movement. Syria then cut off all Iraqi oil exports via the trans-Syrian pipeline. This relationship with Syria was of vital significance to Iran. Since the middle of 1986, however, their relationship has evidently been under strain. From the perspective of Damascus, the revelations about former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane’s secret trip to Tehran and Iran’s purchase of weapons from the United States and Israel were sober shocks. In addition, Syria and Iran have appeared to be pursuing different and possible conflicting policies in Lebanon.

Neither East nor West

Iran’s relations with the superpowers have been in a topsy-turvy state ever since the Gulf war broke out. In the fall of 1980, the Soviet Union was regarded as a patron of Iraq, while the United States, the former patron of Iran, was locked in a bitter dispute with Tehran over the fate of the American diplomats being held as hostages. Iran was determined not to be closely identified with either superpower, and its revolutionary rhetoric proclaimed that both of them exploited the Third World for their own advantage. The exigencies of the war, however, forced the political elite to devise strategies for dealing with the superpowers.

For the United States, weapons proved to be one area of mutual interest. The November 1986 revelations about US arms sales to Iran and the testimony about the May 1986 McFarlane trip provided both to the Tower Commission and at Congressional hearings document the efforts by both countries to mend their relationship. Iran’s motivations were clear: to obtain American-made weapons for use in its war with Iraq. It had become increasingly difficult to purchase sophisticated American-made weapons on account of Operation Staunch, the official US policy of interdicting weapons to Iran. The stated US motivation was to begin the process of improving relations with Iran, although the policy degenerated into an arms-for-hostages deal, with Iran offering to use its influence with Shi‘i groups in Lebanon to get American hostages released in exchange for weapons. Since the weapons went to Iran, and apparently no benefits accrued to the Lebanese groups holding the hostages, Iran’s influence proved to be very limited. Embarrassed by the revelations and unable to convince the American public that the US initiatives were in the long-term interest of the country, the Reagan administration renewed its public hostility toward Iran in May 1987. It is unclear where the provocation will ultimately lead, since neither government is noted for its reasonableness.

The Soviet Union’s support of Iraq, including military equipment, has been a major source of contention between Tehran and Moscow. As a result, their relationship has passed through alternating periods of frigidity and thaw. Iran launched its most recent diplomatic offensive to get the Soviet Union to reduce its arms sales to Iraq in early 1986. This effort unraveled after the public revelations of US-Iranian talks. At the beginning of 1987, the USSR criticized what it referred to as Iranian intransigence in not negotiating the end to the war. However, since the outbreak of verbal hostilities between the US and Iran, Moscow has once again become solicitous of the Iranian position.

Despite the frequent political strains, Iran has maintained its commercial ties with the Soviet Union. These were expanded in the summer of 1986, when Iran agreed to resume selling natural gas to its neighbor. These sales had been terminated after the revolution because of the Soviet refusal to pay the higher prices demanded by the new government.

Back to the Future

Although Iran’s political leadership has adroitly exploited the war to its own advantage in domestic politics, in dealing with the expatriate opposition, and in the conduct of foreign relations, still the war has been a liability. Contrary to the stereotypes presented by the opposition and uncritically broadcast in the Western media, the war has not brought construction to a halt, it has not disrupted manufacturing, and it has not destroyed agriculture. Nevertheless, the war’s overall impact on the economy, and consequently upon the quality of life, has been negative. Except for a brief period from the beginning of 1983 until the end of 1984, the regime has not been able to provide both guns and butter. The dramatic oil price decline that hit in the winter of 1985-1986 exacerbated the government’s difficulties in trying to simultaneously finance a total war and social welfare programs. Restricted levels of both public and private investment have contributed to the general sluggishness of the domestic economy. The Ministry of Labor announced in the autumn of 1986 that the official unemployment rate was 14 percent, a rate that is believed to have remained relatively constant throughout the war. [7]

An Iranian professor visiting the US during July summed up the psychological effects of seven years of war in this way: “The people never talk about politics anymore. They are simply tired. Their energy is drained by waiting in long lines all day to get the simplest things. They never discuss the opposition. Whether they are monarchists or leftists or whatever, they are all irrelevant to the day-to-day problems of life in Iran.” [8]

The regime does have many zealous supporters. But it also seems that a majority of the population unenthusiastically acquiesces to its policies, a situation that probably will endure as long as the war continues. How the people will react to the government once the fighting ends will depend upon the capability of the Islamic Republic to fulfill its long-promised goal of social and economic justice.


[1] For an example of this kind of analysis, see “The Satans at Home,” Economist, June 13, 1987.
[2] Jalal al-Din Farsi’s editorials criticizing the government’s economic policies are analyzed in Iran Times, June 27, 1986.
[3] Excerpts of the Khamenei/Rafsanjani letter are in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, June 2, 1987.
[4] Personal communication, April 30, 1987.
[5] Washington Post, November 19, 1986.
[6] See Hanna Batatu, “Iraq’s Underground Shi‘i Movements,” MERIP Reports 102 (January 1982).
[7] Iran Times, October 31, 1986.
[8] Interview, Washington, DC, July 7, 1986.

How to cite this article:

"Iran and the Gulf War," Middle East Report Online, February 20, 2013.

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