Bad Mind-Reading on Iran

Propagandists often speculate about the evil intentions of some rival state and then bait anyone who suggests that the other side is just looking out for its own interests or harboring its own fears. This propaganda technique has been honed into a fine art form regarding Iran, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar describes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Many who offer opinions on policy toward Iran, and particularly on how to handle negotiations over its nuclear program, implicitly claim an unusual ability to read the minds of Iranian decision-makers. Assertions are made with apparent confidence about what the Iranians want, fear or believe, even without any particular evidence in support. Several possible explanations can account for the misplaced confidence.

One is that we are seeing common psychological mechanisms in action. A well-established human tendency is, for example, to interpret cooperative behavior on another person’s part as a response to one’s own behavior, while ascribing uncooperative conduct to innate orneriness on the part of the other person.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, waving to a crowd. (Iranian government photo)

Thus there is a failure to understand how firmness in Iran’s negotiating position is a response to firmness on the Western side, and there is an accompanying tendency to interpret a lack of Iranian concessions as indicating an Iranian desire to stall and drag out negotiations.

Another explanation is that a particular frame of mind is imputed to the Iranians because it implies a U.S. policy that is politically popular for other reasons. Loading ever more onerous sanctions on Iran is a popular political sport, especially on Capitol Hill, to show toughness or love for Israel. The politicians who play that sport therefore favor a view of the Iranian mindset according to which the Iranians are simply not hurting enough and need to hurt some more, after which they will cry uncle.

A third explanation is that the supposed interpretation of Iranian thinking is a cover for another policy agenda held by the person offering the interpretation. This is especially the case with some of those arguing for more vehement threats of military attack against Iran.

Some of those proponents have made no secret of the fact that they believe (for whatever strange reason) that war with Iran would be a good thing. Saber-rattling gives them a better chance of reaching that goal, because if an agreement is not reached with Iran then the advocates of saber-rattling would be among the first to cry that U.S. credibility would be damaged if the military threats were not carried out.

These possibilities come to mind in reading an op-ed by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In particular, they are brought to mind by Ross and Makovsky’s statement, in explaining lack of progress in the negotiations, that “Iranian leaders seem not to believe that we will use force if diplomatic efforts fail.”

What is their basis for that observation? Have the Iranian leaders themselves said anything like that? No, they haven’t. Ross and Makovsky seem to be basing such an observation solely on the Iranian negotiating position itself, and in so doing they are implying only a single cause for that position.

Whatever Iran does in the way of making or not making concessions is all supposedly a matter of whether the Iranians see the possibility of U.S. military force being employed. Every other carrot, stick, belief or perception evidently does not matter at all.

Actually, those other things matter a lot. There is the little business of sanctions, for example. Ross and Makovsky are to be complimented for stating that if Iran is prepared to make the kind of concessions we are looking for, then “we should be prepared to lift the harsh economic sanctions.”

But they do not mention that the United States and its negotiating partners have given the Iranians little or no reason to believe that we are so prepared. Instead, the only sanctions relief that has been incorporated in the Western proposals is stingy in comparison with the panoply of sanctions that Congress keeps piling on.

We do not need any magical insight into secret Iranian thoughts to realize how important this dimension is in shaping Iran’s negotiating behavior. We only have to look at the demands and proposals that Iran has advanced at the negotiating table, as well as the actual economic damage that the sanctions have inflicted.

Ross and Makovsky get something else right, but for the wrong reason. Their piece is partly an argument in favor of making a comprehensive proposal rather than taking a step-by-step approach; they pooh-pooh the idea of confidence-building that is associated with step-by-step.

A comprehensive proposal is a good idea, but precisely because a lack of confidence, which is glaring on both sides, is a major part of the problem. The Iranians lack confidence that the United States and its P5+1 partners ever want to get to an end state in which they fully and formally accept a peaceful nuclear program, with uranium enrichment, in the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran, rather than indefinitely stringing out negotiations while the sanctions continue to inflict their damage.

Again, we do not need to be mind-readers to realize this; the Iranians have been quite explicit in stating that they require a clearer idea of where the negotiations are heading.

So a “going big” comprehensive proposal is a good idea, but not as Ross and Makovsky pitch it, as some kind of ultimatum with a threat of military force functioning as an “or else” clause of the proposal. That kind of clause only stokes Iranian doubts about the West’s ultimate intentions and feeds Iranian interest in a possible nuclear weapon as a deterrent.

What is the explanation for Ross and Makovsky’s assertions about Iranian thinking? Are they exhibiting one of those psychological heuristics, or covering a hidden agenda, or something else? I don’t know; I don’t pretend to be able to read their minds.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

13 comments for “Bad Mind-Reading on Iran

  1. Mad Adam
    June 2, 2013 at 13:37

    What was the name of the Arab woman disemboweled by the IDF at Deir Yassein ? What was her crime, refusing to be forced out of her home by the Irgun … Haganha …? Help me here. Is Israel beginning to believe it’s propaganda … Borat should go back and reread Paragraph one … : )

  2. sam
    June 2, 2013 at 11:47

    Iran is an israeli target; an issue to push forward and talk about every time bb natanyahu gets a chance to throw infront of the american corporate media to cover up the expanding of settlements and the stealling of more and more palestinian land. Jusy like they did in getting bush to distroy what was once called iraq…

  3. Paul G.
    June 2, 2013 at 05:22

    Tell that to the Palestinians, who have been subject to Israel’s contributions to population control, as well as its violation of UN resolutions. And by the way modern Israel was founded by a terrorist organization. If it wasn’t a state it would still be a terrorist organization.

    • Alex
      June 3, 2013 at 09:53

      Just remember…. Hitler (and all the head Nazis) was a white European Christian… a Catholic according to his own writings… so not fair to extract from the Palestinians and other Middle Easterners payback for what he did… then again fairness is never an issue so that shows how naive I must be…

  4. meremark
    June 2, 2013 at 01:52

    Paul Pillar, you are on to something. You speak truth.

    A reader without much detailed knowledge of the subject can still tell the article is truth with impact, because its appearance has drawn the propaganda catapult trolls.

    I do declare it must be only stupidity in trolls (and the tantrum-fixated non’think tanks’) that they don’t see plainly their desperate lying and hyperbole and intentional discourteous annoyances not only fails to attract new followers, it repulses and insults any recruitable prospects who might have swallowed the propaganda, brainless, but more the troll (and totalitarian) behaviors inflame everyone against them, including disinterested bystanders.

    Like lately, ‘normal’ rightist Republicans say directly they must reject and detach (peel off the stick-on ‘R’-decal lapel tag) and get distance from the sicko fringe America-haters in command of the ‘R’ Party gone over the edge into the goner dustbin of History’s has-beens.

    This article about Iran, and the common person’s sense in the subject, would be better to include the 60-years of futility and self-defeat for USA foreign ‘policy’, in Iran since the illegal CIA 1953 invasion and overthrow of Iran’s governance and peaceful development in democratically elected and popular Muhammad Mossadeq. CIA USA was wrong in the first place ’53, really war criminals, and purposely wrong beligerently every time ever since.
    {click} IranReview.ORG – The Coup 1953 CIA crimes.

    Even the Israel idiot troll, here, might read it in order to be able to cite relevant details so that it would take people a bit longer to see it’s a troll and ignore that Likudnik liar propaganda.

    Here is a forecast of a couple of upcoming utter defeats of USA CIA, by criminal murderous behavior accomplishing the exact opposite of what they tell people (taxpayers).

    * Israel is soon going to be abolished. They bring it on themselves by hating all humankind in cultures around the world. Last year Kissinger said, “Israel will cease to exist in 10 years.” I expect it is faster.

    * Britain’s Queen is going to resign. and end the British Monarchy. ever more.
    After all, the Pope can quit after centuries, so can the Queen.

  5. mahmood delkhasteh
    June 1, 2013 at 14:01

    Hi everybody,

    In that regard I published an article in Huffington Post and thought some of you might like to look at it:

    The irrelevance of Iran’s presidential election

    The main function of elections in democracies is to enable the exercise of the people’s authority over the power of the state by establishing a government to implement policies which the public has voted for. Iran’s government, however, is bound by a constitution which states that a “supreme leader” has ultimate power over all branches of state and government. Elections of such a government, in effect, legitimize a regime which deprives people of their right to determine the state in which they live.
    In fact, what appears to be the “election” in Iran is only the shell of a political form; a remnant of the early years of the revolution and the first draft of the country’s constitution in which the sole source of legitimacy for any government was to be the people’s vote. But due to a power struggle between democratic and dictatorial interests, the constitution was rewritten to enshrine two competing sources of legitimacy: the people’s vote and the Velayat-e Faqih (the rule of the jurist or supreme leader). At the time, the position of supreme leader was filled by the undisputed leadership of Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini. Eventually, this constant tension between the two sources of legitimacy led Khomeini, at the end of his life, to tilt the balance of power further towards the supreme leader, thereby increasing his role in the constitution from a mainly observatory status to one of absolute power. The preservation of the regime became an ultimate and absolute duty, thus justifying virtually any act towards this end.
    Soon after Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani orchestrated the appointment of Seyd Ali Khamenei to the position of supreme leader, despite the fact that Khamenei lacked even the minimum religious qualifications to fill such a position. It later emerged that Rafsanjani had forged a letter from Khomeini, with the French newspaper Le Monde publishing the findings of the two international experts who had exposed this. Rafsanjani’s calculation seems to have been based on a view that Khamenei, his friend of 30 years, would be too inept, too timid and too insecure in the position to do anything against Rafsanjani’s will. In effect, he wanted to place Khamenei as a figurehead, like the queen of the United Kingdom, while he would retain all power as president.
    Initially, Rafsanjani’s calculation seemed correct: During his presidency, Khamenei was largely invisible and never dared to interfere in the affairs of his government. However, although sycophants around Rafsanjani were trying to portray him as the “General of Reconstruction,” eight years of devastating war with Iraq and inflation levels of more than 50 percent indicated a different reality. During this time, rising government corruption made him the wealthiest man in the country. And if this was not enough, his policy of systematically assassinating his opponents eventually earned him the nickname of “Godfather.”
    In 1997, Rafsanjani, Khamenei and a number of other high-ranking officials were convicted of ordering the assassinations of Kurdish leaders in Germany in 1992. The verdict of the Mykonos Trial isolated the regime and made it deeply insecure about its future. This made it impossible for Rafsanjani to amend the constitution to run for a third term, and at the same time provided political reformists within the regime the opportunity to obtain permission from the supreme leader for a little-known candidate named Mohammad Khatami to run for presidency in 1997. The tsunami of protest votes against the supreme leader’s favored candidate, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, brought out millions of people who had boycotted elections since the 1981 coup against the country’s first elected president. The regime was caught off guard, and Khatami entered into office.
    This victory marginalized Rafsanjani on the political scene, and his role in other high offices, such as head of the Council of Experts, remained ceremonial. However, Khatami did not take this opportunity to push for greater structural reform. On the contrary, he remained submissive to the supreme leader and enabled Khamenei to begin using the absolute power which was granted to him in the constitution. With this, the initial and partial opening up of political space was closed again, and Khatami was transformed from someone once described as the “second Banisadr” or the “Gorbachev of Iran” into, in his own self-description, the “errand boy” of the supreme leader.
    After Khatami’s presidency ended, Rafanjani twice attempted to make a grand entrance back onto the political scene. Once was in 1997, when he ran for election as a member of parliament from Tehran, with the ambition of becoming head of the parliament. On this occasion, he was forced to retreat in the face of fierce opposition from reformists and accusations of vote rigging. His second attempt came in 2005, when he ran for president. This was again vehemently opposed by the embattled reformists, while behind the scenes Khamenei ensured that his own hardly-known candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won the election.
    In the 2009 presidential election, the regime needed to demonstrate that it had popular support. It therefore let two reformist candidates, Mir Hussein Musavi and Mehdi Karubi, run as candidates. Large sections of the public interpreted this move as a political opening, but the initial mass euphoria ended in shell shock when Ahmadinejad emerged victorious from the ballot box. However, this time the other candidates refused to accept the result of the election. Far more importantly, a change in the psyche of the people gave birth to the Green Movement, which brought millions onto the streets in defiance. This movement was curtailed through a massive, bloody crackdown. But it was also curtailed by the reformist elements of its own discourse, which severely limited the scope and demands of its leaders’ actions.
    Since then, the regime has arrested hundreds of its opponents, including many reformists, and put Musavi and Karubi under house arrest. At the same time, Khamenei has decided that in any future presidents should be totally subservient to him — unlike Ahmadinejad, who rebelled during his second term — and that he must cleanse the regime of reformists and Ahmadinejad’s “seditious”faction. All of this has been happening within the context of back-breaking economic sanctions, ongoing nuclear issues, political isolation and Khamenei’s domestic and international isolation.
    Khamenei needed mass participation at the polling stations to strengthen his weakened position, but the reformists initially set conditions. They had already abandoned their demands to investigate the murder and torture of many Green Movement activists who had taken part in the street protests of 2009, thus consigning this to history. However, they still attempted to condition their participation on the freeing of their leaders from house arrest and the pardoning of political prisoners. But Khamenei needed reformists to participate in the election without condition, as agreeing to any would have damaged his strongman image and undone years of effort to get rid of reformism.
    The reformists eventually abandoned all of their demands and tried to bring Khatami back to run for president. He soon came under attack from the supreme leader’s supporters and decided that he was not up to the task, stating also that it would be wrong to participate in the election while Musavi and Karubi remained under house arrest. Later, he also argued that the number of people voting in the election would be irrelevant, as the supreme leader would decide how many votes should be assigned to whom. Nevertheless, some of his main supporters openly stated that the only time the reformists would participate in the election would be when Khatami ran for office.
    Meanwhile, Rafsanjani was also contemplating running for the office. After a meeting with Khamenei, however, he said that the supreme leader had a very different reading of the situation than his own and that he did not trust him, adding that nothing could be done without Khamenei’s consent. Everyone thus assumed that Rafsanjani would stand down, but at the last minute he rushed to the registry office to put down his name. Later, his supporters spread word that he had received a phone call from the supreme leader, but Khamenei’s office denies this claim. Furthermore, the following day, Khamenei himself stated that candidates should not make promises which are beyond their authority to fulfill, implying that he continues to hold the real power and that he was discontent with Rafsanjani’s nomination.
    Soon after the nomination, however, a surge of reformist groups and personalities such as Khatami rushed to Rafsanjani’s support, calling him the “savior of the nation” and disregarding the fact that the reformists had initially constructed their identity through opposing the person and policies which Rafsanjani glorified in his letter of nomination. Still, the rejection of Rafsanjani by the Council of Guardian proved their miscalculation.
    How do we explain the reformists’ rush of support for Rafsanjani?
    In their haste to support the person who was the main architect of the ongoing disaster in Iran, the reformists have disregarded Rafsanjani’s entire history: his role in the continuation of a war which could have ended victoriously after nine months but continued for another seven years before ending in defeat, with more than $1 million people killed or injured and $1 trillion of damage; the astronomical corruption which made Rafsanjani one of the richest men in the country and brought the Revolutionary Guards into the economy; his role in removing Khomeini’s democratically oriented successor, Ayatollah Montazeri; or his amending of the constitution to transfer the mainly observatory role of vali-faqih (supreme leader) to an absolute power with no accountability; and the execution of thousands of prisoners and systematic assassination of hundreds of opponents both inside and outside the country, which led to the Mykonos Trial in Germany and his (and Khamenei’s) conviction in 1997. This is not to mention the Tower Commission Report written at the order of Ronald Reagan as the result of Iran-Contra, in which it was revealed that Rafsanjani had asked Reagan’s government to support Iraq in its war with Iran in order to prevent radicals in Iran from getting the upper hand.
    The abandonment of their conditions for participating in the election, along with their support for a person such as Rafsanjani who still takes pride in his past, tells us that the prime goal of the reformists in political activity is power. For them, preserving the regime through which they get their identity and financial well-being is the ultimate goal, or, as Khomeini put it, the “ultimate duty” (ojebe vaajebaat). Judging from their actions, their main goal for reform is not, and never was, to change Iranians’ political status from duty-bound minors to full citizens, or to establish a democratic regime worthy of such citizens, but rather to reform it enough to make it sustainable while taking the edge off of simmering discontent.
    Here we can see why the Green Movement, which preceded the Arab Spring, failed to achieve its goals. It failed because it did not break away from reformist discourse, and allowed itself to be controlled by reformist leaders and intellectuals who used people in their political game. They succeeded in doing this mainly because they were able to convince their supporters to make few demands and have low expectations. They equated the demands for democracy and human rights that could not be accommodated by the structurally unreformable regime as radical, and accused those striving for freedom, independence and human rights as idealists who are detached from reality.
    Within this discourse, reform became equated with nonviolent and rational action and revolution with irrational, violent acts. In this way, they succeeded in controlling political activity through twin mechanisms of fear and hope — the fear of structural change, and hope in the reformability of the unreformable. Young people became full of fear of venturing out and full of a vain hope in the power of asking for and expecting little. Humiliation became a major ingredient in the discourse of reform, as only a humiliated person who is convinced by a language of “realism” and “pragmatism” and who has disowned “idealism” would be able to support a political system which treats her/him as a minor, and in which the vote of one single person can veto the votes of an entire nation.
    We can therefore be certain that the reformists will resort to using any fallacy or deception in order to make people believe that they are trapped between a rock and a hard place, thereby preventing their supporters from leaving their camp to participate in the spectacle of the so-called election. After all, they are followers of Khomeini, who once openly stated that “it is possible that in the past I have said something, and today I say something else, and tomorrow I say something different. It does not make any sense to remain loyal to my word if I have said something before.”
    The long journey of Iranian people towards freedom and independence will only end when they bid farewell to the reformists who have every interest in preserving this regime which survives by moving the country from one crisis to another. Boycotting the election would be a first step.

  6. Don Bacon
    June 1, 2013 at 11:41

    Iran’s thinking on the fabricated nuclear issue is no mystery. Why read Ross and Makovsky and not read Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?

    Americans constantly send us messages, telling us that they are sincere in their offers of rational negotiation. They claim that they sincerely want to have rational negotiations with Iran – that is to say, they claim that they do not want imposition. In response, I would say, we have told you many times that we are not after nuclear weapons and you say that you do not believe us. Why would we believe your statements then? When you are not prepared to accept a rational and sincere statement, why would we accept your statements which have been disproved many times? Our interpretation is that offers of negotiation are an American tactic to mislead public opinion in the world and in our country. You should prove that this is not the case. Can you prove this? Go ahead and prove it if you can.
    . . .
    They say they are concerned that we might go after producing nuclear weapons. The ones who are saying this are no more than a few countries whose names I mentioned earlier, and they call themselves “the global community”. They say that the global community is concerned. No, the global community is not at all concerned. The majority of the countries in the world are on the Islamic Republic’s side and they support our demand because it is a legitimate demand.
    . . .
    If the Americans wanted to resolve the issue, this would be a very simple solution: they could recognize the Iranian nation’s right to enrichment and in order to address those concerns, they could enforce the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. We were never opposed to the supervision and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Whenever we are close to a solution, the Americans cause a problem in order to prevent reaching a solution.

  7. Hossein
    June 1, 2013 at 10:39

    @ borat
    I think you are referring to Israel.

    • Alex
      June 3, 2013 at 09:49

      @borat – Notwithstanding the crimes of the Islamic Republic, Israel as a matter of fact does execute (or bomb or bulldoze) children, women and families in general. There are ample references to what Israel does with homes, territories, olive groves and so on. The methods are designed so that may be referred to “humane” to the Western eye/ear but it is actually worse as it is closer to ethnic cleansing and genocide than a simple murder (not that it is ok to murder). But simple murder is less bad than mass ethnic cleansing and mass subjugation. We are comparing two evils and the lesser evil is better than the grand evil so to speak.

  8. JR
    May 31, 2013 at 16:39

    As an Iranian living in the US for the past 35 years I’ve seen propaganda machine rolling out what we should think about Iran. I believe that Iranians want to be free from their government as any person would living under a homogenous systems. What I also believe is that we as westerners have no say on how and when that should happen. Iranians are capable and educated to make their own decisions without any outside help and interference. This barbaric sanctions have destroyed the economy of Iran, reduced the middle class, and hurt everyone who lives there. This is done to appease our so called friend Israel. Most Americans are blind to the plight of Iranians and in fact don’t care understandably. This is a far country with no relations in peoples mind and have been so distorted that the image of Iran is all but negative. What makes me so sad are the Iranians living abroad who are silent knowing that the sanctions are wrong. We as Iranian Americans should make our voices heard before Iran is no longer. An attack on Iran will cause countless deaths in Iran and abroad. Lets spread the word and help end this injustice called sanctions.

  9. Paul G.
    May 31, 2013 at 04:16

    Interesting statistics, Iran has a higher educational level than the US, which is becoming an un-developing country with failed state level of politics at the Federal level.
    “The old champion of the free world” has mostly been an illusion for imposing free market “Washington consensus” economics on every part of the world it can bribe or bully into submission.
    If you read real US history-very depressing- you will find the US has intervened militarily in other countries several hundred times. So many it is difficult to keep track. Especially since many are covert, remember the Shah.
    Since Bush and continuing through the Obomber it has become more blatant, hence the appearance of “straying from its own path”.
    Nice to see a comment from someone on the other end of US policy.

  10. F. G. Sanford
    May 30, 2013 at 12:36

    Iran is a technologically competent society with an educated population capable of exploiting its own vast natural resources. It has resisted Western efforts to privatize and exploit those resources. It has the potential to become not just a regional player, but a globally influential economic and political entity.

    Yes, there are lots of things wrong with Iran, but not anywhere near as wrong as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, The United Arab Emirates and others. Even if Iran dismantled its entire nuclear program, it would not likely become the recipient of Western good graces. Some other canard would quickly float to the top of the Western propaganda cesspool to become a bone of contention in the incessant strategy of destabilization, regime change and economic exploitation that is the hallmark of Western foreign policy.

    PNAC tipped our hand. WINEP, AIPAC, The Brookings Institute, The Heritage Foundation, The Institute for the Study of War and others gave it all away. Mouaz Moustafa of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, was also the point man for the Libyan Emergency Task Force. Americans are generally too confused by funny names to pick up on a coincidence like that, but the Iranians aren’t. In their hubris to pat themselves on the back, our own think-tanks have compromised any semblance national security by making our foreign policy objectives a matter of public record. John McCain, apparently oblivious to the fact that conducting foreign policy outside of the Executive branch violates the Logan Act, may have posed for a picture with Mohammed Nour, one of the “Northern Storm” kidnappers. To top it off, members of the Syrian opposition forces have proudly flaunted videos of themselves practicing cannibalism.

    The chaos that now prevails in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Mali, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, or the barbaric feudalism of the Gulf Cooperation Council states is what awaits Iran if it concedes. There is not one country in the Middle East, Africa or South America where Western intervention has led to democracy or economic stability. What it has created is poverty, desperation, privatization and dirt-cheap raw materials. Western foreign policy and national security interests may be a big secret to Americans, but its no secret to the countries devastated by them.

    Iran is banking on the fact that the U.S.A. has destroyed its own economy, compromised its own values, diminished its own quality of life, disillusioned its own population and revealed the hypocrisy of its real objectives during the past ten years. I can’t read their minds either, but I think they know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. My guess is, they’ll call our bluff. The alternative could be a cannibal sandwich, courtesy of those famous “freedom fighters”. We have John McCain to thank for erasing any doubts about what we’d be prepared to offer them in the way of concessions.

    • Hossein
      May 30, 2013 at 14:23

      @ F. G. Sanford on
      I am an Iranian and I can say your guess is more factual than all the so called think tanks and the administrations. The Iranian population is now 95% educated and out of that 95% about 70% move on to higher education. They know what they want and it is not the western style democracy that has been planted in the neighboring countries. But what the average American can not see is that the rest of the world including us are horrified to see how far the old champion of the free world “USA” has strayed from it’s own path.

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