How The U.S. Knows What It Knows About Iran

GUESTS:
Charles Duelfer, consultant with Ominis Inc.
Juan Cole, author of Engaging the Muslim World

Iran is scheduled to meet again with the U.S. and five other world powers to discuss its nuclear program. Charles Duelfer, former deputy chairman of the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq, explains what we know about Iran's nuclear program, and how we know it.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After some reported progress last week in Geneva, Iran will meet again with the U.S. and five other world powers to discuss its nuclear program and Iran invited U.N. inspectors to visit a previously secret uranium enrichment facility. But while Tehran continues to insist that it's all part of a peaceful civilian nuclear power program, few believe it. And if Iran is just stalling for time and refuses to stop, the U.S., Britain, Germany and France will press Russia and China to impose more sanctions. And if that doesn't work many worry that either the U.S. or Israel will decide the only option left is air strikes.

But that's based on assumptions about Iran's abilities and its intentions. So what do we actually know about Iran's nuclear program, and how do we know it? Why would a nuclear-armed Iran be unacceptable?

Later in the hour, a new program asks the public to help spot terrorists in their neighborhoods. Chief William Bratton of the Los Angeles Police Department will join us. But first, Iran.

If you have questions about what Iran is building and how we know about it, the phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

First we turn to Charles Duelfer, who's the former deputy chairman of the U.N. Weapons Inspection Team in Iraq. He headed the CIA's Iraq WMD search in 2004. He's currently a consultant with Ominis Incorporated. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. Charles Duelfer (Consultant, Ominis Inc.): Thank you.

CONAN: And what do we know about Iran and its nuclear ambitions?

Mr. DUELFER: Well, it's been revealed to the world publicly as pretty substantial, at least as compared with Iraq. It's quite clear that they have an infrastructure that knows what it's doing with respect to nuclear programs. They have a declared nuclear enrichment facility that that IAEA is monitoring.

They certainly have the wherewithal to proceed towards building a nuclear weapon if they elected to do so. But the question, as in so many cases, is a question of intent. They have the intellectual capacity. They have the resources. It's a question of intent.

CONAN: And we know this, well, in part because Iran has been caught lying a couple of times. Their nuclear - their uranium enrichment facilities were both busted, the first one by an opposition group and the last one a couple of weeks ago by the United States.

Mr. DUELFER: Well, Neal, this is a problem. There's a long track record with respect to Iran of lying, where they have been concealing things. And I would point to a similarity with Iraq in this case, where for many years the Iraqis were lying to the weapons inspectors, and it got the point where even when they were telling the truth, no one was prepared to believe them. And if Iran continues down the path that it has been on for the last almost two decades, the same situation could arise, and it really becomes a tough problem to know the truth.

CONAN: And does the suggestion that IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency -U.N. inspectors visit this newly revealed facility near Qom - does that give you confidence?

Mr. DUELFER: Well, it doesn't give me a lot of confidence that we're going to get to the bottom of the Iranian program just by allowing the inspectors into this site.

The inspectors are a vital tool. They can cause the subject party to have to do a lot of things that they wouldn't have to do otherwise, but they're not a guarantee that you're going to cause a country to reveal something it doesn't want to reveal.

They have to be considered as a part of a mix of tools to try to cause either a country to modify its behavior or to reveal information that will confirm what intelligence analysts may be thinking.

CONAN: Well, in Iraq, after the First Gulf War and before the Second Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq, U.N. inspectors were able to go in and arrive unannounced and arrive unannounced and burst into facilities and see what they wanted to see and interview scientists and go visit their homes and search for documents.

Mr. DUELFER: Neal, this is a very good point that you're raising, because there is a fundamental difference between the circumstances in Iraq and the circumstances in Iran.

The circumstances in Iraq were - the inspectors went in after Iraq lost a war. This was not arms control. Iraq didn't sign a treaty by which it was agreeing to allow these inspectors in. It lost a war. These conditions were imposed upon it. A similar case was in Versailles, the Versailles Treaty for Germany.

With respect to Iran, they are accepting inspectors as part of the non-proliferation treaty. This is part of the, you know, the international agreement which they agreed to. So they are permitting these inspectors in.

That body of regulation does not permit the same access, the same freedom of movement that we as inspectors had in Iraq. In Iraq, we could do almost anything we wanted, at least on paper. We could go anywhere, talk to anyone. We could bring in equipment. We could go anywhere. That's not the case in Iran.

CONAN: In Iran, then, if inspectors show up and say we'd like to see what's behind that door, if the Iranians say no you can't, they can't go?

Mr. DUELFER: That is correct. That was also the case in Iraq because Iraq, they had guns, and we had, you know, cameras and stubby pencils. So, you know, in any case, the sovereign state, you know, gets to call the shots at the end of the day.

But it's clear that that would be a violation if, on a declared facilities, the Iranians said no, you inspectors said cannot go here, you cannot take samples there. That's the limiting factor.

CONAN: So, given those limitations, are inspectors really inspecting anything? Can they come away with the accurate conclusions?

Mr. DUELFER: Well, you'd be surprised, because even with limited access, if inspectors can take samples - and that's an important tool - if you can take environmental samples from various locations, and then if the inspected party, in this case Iran, if they have the obligation to explain the results of those, you can learn quite a lot.

This was important in North Korea, where some sampling revealed, in fact, that North Korea had a uranium-based program in addition to their declared plutonium program, and that was all revealed by sampling.

That's - there are some very important and useful tools that inspectors have.

CONAN: We should point out this is an anniversary of sorts for you. Five years ago to this day, you delivered what's known as the Duelfer Report, your report to Congress that basically said we got it all wrong in Iraq on WMDs. Are we at risk of making the same mistake with Iran?

Mr. DUELFER: Well, we're always at risk of making mistakes, but if we make mistakes in Iran, I think they'll tend to be different mistakes.

CONAN: Well, I guess that's good news.

Mr. DUELFER: There are some known things about the Iranian circumstances, which did not apply in Iraq. I mean, we know that Iran has a substantial nuclear program. Now, the question is whether it's being set up to provide nuclear weapons as well - in addition to nuclear energy.

You know, Iran is a very different country than Iraq. You know, Saddam was a very - you know, he was a dictator, and he tightly controlled the place. If you wanted to understand Iraq, you had to get inside Saddam's head.

Iran is different. There is a lively political circumstance there. They have elections, which, you know, have some degree of freedom, not freedom that we would recognize in this country, but you know, Saddam won elections by 100 percent, and that's not quite the same in Iran.

There's Internet. There's satellite radio and satellite television in Iran. These are different circumstances that apply there, and the opportunities for information to leak out are also more promising.

CONAN: So that gives you some confidence that you can know about, but nevertheless, this new facility that they just announced, what, two weeks ago was after they became aware that the United States knew about it. There could well be other secret facilities we don't know about.

Mr. DUELFER: That's absolutely true, and you know, this particular facility, you know, it fits in a model or a hypothesis that some have regarding what could be the Iranian weapons program, where they're designing it and scheduling parts of it to minimize the unconditional warning time that the international community would have that they're in fact going to make the nuclear weapon -the so-called break-out time.

If at the existing facility, the one in which there are inspectors, a place called Natanz, it is enriching uranium for civilian purpose - what they call low-enriched uranium. To take that uranium and make it into the highly enriched uranium, that which is useful for bombs, would require doing things which the inspectors would notice. However, if it were diverted to a second facility that had already been prepared and ready to accept this material to put it into the highly enriched form, they can shorten the warning time that the international community might have to months versus a year or two.

CONAN: We're talking with Charles Duelfer, former deputy chairman of the U.N. Weapons Inspection Team in Iraq, called UNSCOM, and then later headed the CIA's Iraq WMD search in 2004, is the author of "Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq."

800-989-8255, email us, talk@npr.org. Nancy's(ph) on the line, calling from Boise.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. I guess my question is why we are more afraid of the Iranians than, say, the Pakistanis or the Indians.

Mr. DUELFER: Well, that's a good question, and it's a question that the, you know, Iranians would pose. Well, if you're not so upset about the Indians or the Pakistanis having nuclear weapons, why are you upset about us?

Now, there's of course many answers to that, but answer is that Iran has been, you know, quite antagonistic - not just to the United States but to other countries in the region.

They've made obviously very vigorous statements about Israel, but you know, this is the country which, you know, after they overthrew the shah, took over our embassy. We have had, you know, horrible relations with them for many years. They've been supporting terrorism. Hezbollah has been conducting operations in a number of countries, which are antithetical, not only to ourselves, but to our friends.

So they have a track record which is a very bad track record. That does not apply with respect to India or Pakistan.

CONAN: There's also the question that some raise that, given the tensions between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab states, that if the Iranians got the bomb, the Egyptians and the Saudis would be hot on their heels to follow suit. There would be a regional arms race.

Mr. DUELFER: I think, Neal, any time another country acquires nuclear weapons, it's a bad thing - just because the more people that have these things, the easier it is for something to go wrong. But in particular in this region, where there are tensions - as you mentioned, longstanding over, you know, millennia, between the various parties - there's going to be a reaction. And if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, these other countries are going to want to react in some fashion, whether they opt to go nuclear themselves, or they're going to require, you know, relations with other countries to support them. Something will happen, and it won't be good.

CONAN: And then there's also the question of Israel, which has as many as, what 300 nuclear warheads, it's very widely believed, and Israel's right to have those. It's, of course, not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, and its facility at Dimona, which produces the material it uses to fuel those nuclear weapons, has never been inspected.

Mr. DUELFER: That's true, and you know, people in the region, and I had a lot of experience in these types of arguments with Iraq, is they say, well, look, why do you care about us when you don't care about Israel? Isn't that unfair?

Well, you know, life is unfair, particularly in international relations. There are some countries that you trust with certain things and other countries that you don't, and there are those things which you can change and those things which you cannot.

CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking with Charles Duelfer, formerly of the U.N. Weapons Inspection Team in Iraq called UNSCOM. He's the author of "Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq."

If you'd like to join us in our conversation about what we know about Iran's nuclear weapons program and how we know it, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A new poll out today shows a solid majority of Americans would support military action against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons if necessary. The Pew poll shows the public supports negotiations, though it has little hopes the talks will succeed.

We're talking today about Iran's nuclear ambitions, what we know and the implications of a nuclear-armed Iran. If you have questions about what Iran is building, how we know about it, how we know about it, the phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Charles Duelfer, who served as deputy chair of the U.N. Weapons Inspection Team in Iraq. He later wrote the book "Hide and Seek: The Search for truth in Iraq," and we want to bring another voice into the conversation now. Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, author of "Engaging the Muslim World," and he joins us from his office there right before he has to go to class, and professor, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. JUAN COLE (Author, "Engaging the Muslim World"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And I know you're skeptical of the many fears that we have about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Mr. COLE: Well, I'm skeptical just because it is often alleged that Iran has vowed to get nuclear weapons, that its leadership says it wants them, that Iran has vowed to attack neighboring countries, wipe them out, and this is all propaganda. I mean, it's simply not true.

We have to at least pay a little attention to what they actually say, and it's a theocracy. The supreme leader says that having and using nuclear weapons is a tool of the Satan. It's just against Islamic law, the Islamic law of war does not allow the killing, the indiscriminate killing of innocent non-combatants, women and children, which any deployment of a nuclear weapon obviously would do.

CONAN: Given the long history of Iranian lies about its nuclear program, why should we believe them this time?

Mr. COLE: Well, first of all, the lies have been a lack of complete transparency about their civilian nuclear research. And for instance, the most recent lie was that they didn't tell us that they were building a new facility near Qom, which was in a mountain. But it seems to me that that's a different order of things than to have a theocratic leader, who's kind of like the pope, come out and lie about Islamic law and its implications for national policy. It's as though we expect the pope actually favors abortion and secretly is encouraging people to get them.

CONAN: So that statement by the chief cleric, you think, is absolutely certainty that Iraq - Iran, rather - is not building nuclear weapons?

Mr. COLE: I think it's absolutely certain that the supreme leader of Iran, who's a theocratic dictator, believes that having and using nuclear weapons is contrary to Islamic law, and he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and so forth.

Now, is it possible that there are rogue elements in the Revolutionary Guards who secretly are putting people up to things? You know, anything is possible. But if we want to know what is the stance, what is the public stance, what do they say, of the Islamic Republic - that's it.

CONAN: Then why, in the first place, given that they were signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which gives them the right to acquire civilian facilities, why did they secretly import technology from the A.Q. Khan Network in Pakistan?

Mr. COLE: Well, the technology that they imported was simply the Dutch designs for using centrifuges to work on…

CONAN: And the centrifuges themselves.

Mr. COLE: Yeah, well the centrifuges themselves. But the centrifuges - the whole problem here, Neal, is that the centrifuges as a form of technology are open-ended. You could use them to produce fuel for reactors, which in case you would enrich to about five percent, but they have a medical reactor that they produce medical isotopes with, which needs 20 percent.

There's no particular bar to your also using them, were they not being intensively inspected, to enrich to 90 percent, in which case you could make a bomb - if you could figure out how to use them for that purpose.

CONAN: Yes, we accept all of that. So if they were just going to use them for civilian purposes of medical purposes, why import the technology secretly from Pakistan? Why not do it openly?

Mr. COLE: Well because they're afraid of being attacked. I mean, Iraq had a light water reactor, Osiraq, which was built for them by the French in the 1970s, and a light water reactor is near enough impossible to use to make a bomb. But the Israelis bombed it, just as I think as a matter of political theater to make the point nobody's allowed to go anywhere near nuclear technology in the Middle East.

So if you know that the Israelis will bomb you if you try to develop a nuclear plant, even for civilian purposes - which is was Osiraq was - then you'd be secretive.

CONAN: A lot Israelis would say, given Iraq's subsequent efforts to acquire nuclear technology, Osiraq was a wise decision.

Mr. COLE: Well, it can be a wise decision or not. The fact is that it could not be used to make an atomic bomb, and we know that after it was bombed, then the Iraqis went into a crash program to try to get a nuclear weapon.

So it could be the Israelis have it the other way around. They may have impelled Iraq in that direction.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Rita, Rita with us from Newbury in Ohio.

RITA (Caller): Hi, thank you. What - isn't it human nature to strive for a balance of power? If Israel has nuclear weapons, wouldn't it - I mean, there's - we all strive for a bomb.

CONAN: So you're saying given their desire to balance Israeli nuclear weapons that they are justified to acquire nuclear weapons?

RITA: Well, the whole Middle East. If it wouldn't be Iran, it would be somebody else striving for a balance of power.

CONAN: Juan Cole, the balance of power.

Mr. COLE: Well, I think it's certainly the case that the fact that Israel from the late '60s developed nuclear arms - and probably can produce about 10 nuclear weapons a year at Dimona - is a destabilizing factor, if what you want is non-proliferation in the Middle East.

I think it's certainly the case that Iraq's program was in part a response to Israel's. And my own view is that likely what the Iranians are doing, is that they want what is called the Japan option or nuclear latency.

That is to say if you have the know-how to make a bomb, that's almost as good as having a bomb. And then it solves all of their problems, because it changes the geostrategic equation. Khamenei can be satisfied they don't have a bomb, so they don't have to use it. It's not against Islamic law to know how to make one, and so I think that the International Atomic Energy Agency and many world leaders are aware that that's what the Iranians are doing. They're just going for latency - and they don't want them to have that either because it has these geostrategic implications.

CONAN: So they would have a degree of nuclear ambiguity, as well. We may not have it now, but we could have it very quickly.

Mr. COLE: Yes, exactly, which is also the card that Japan, Japanese politicians often play against North Korea and China.

CONAN: Juan Cole, we know you have to get to class. We thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. COLE: Thanks so much, Neal. It's always great being on.

CONAN: Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, author of "Engaging the Muslim World." And I wonder - we'll get back to our other guest, Charles Duelfer, do those expressions that this violates Islamic law , do they give anybody any comfort?

Mr. DUELFER: Well, I mean, Juan certainly makes a point that according to, you know, some leaders in Iran, building and using a nuclear weapon might be considered bad. But the problem is I'm not sure that that's a universally held view by, you know, as Juan himself mentioned, some of the people in the Revolutionary Guard, and what happens when someone else is in charge of Iran?

The notion of a latent weapon is, of course, something, it's a possibility. I think it is also quite clear that, you know, how latent do you want it to be? Do you want it to be a weapon that you can use tomorrow, and all you have to do is assemble the sub-elements; or do you want to have the, you know, a longer-lead case? And when you look at what Iran is doing, it certainly appears to be structured in a way that they can wind up with a nuclear weapon in an increasingly short period of time.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Jeff(ph), Jeff with us from Portland.

JEFF (Caller): Yes, hello, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Portland, Oregon. We wouldn't want to get confused with Maine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFF: Thank you. One of the last callers, Juan I believe, or the guests, kind of starting touching on this. I was curious what it is exactly that it is, perspective-wise, that we think Iran is lying about in terms of - my understanding was they announced that a facility was being built, and then America came out a few days later saying that it was a secret facility and that we had known about it for a while.

So, first off, why didn't America announce that we had known about this before Iran announced to the IAEA that it was there? And then the second part of my question…

CONAN: Well, why don't we go one at a time, Jeff, because that's not a simple answer.

JEFF: Okay.

Mr. DUELFER: Jeff, I think you're raising a very good point. It has been reported - and I don't doubt it - that America has in fact been aware of this facility for quite some period of time. The New York Times reported that President-elect Obama had been briefed on this facility even before he was sworn in. And I think it was probably a shrewd use of this knowledge to not make it public until after the Iranian elections.

The United States, you know, kept a hand-off approach while the Iranian population went through its political process. And I think that in fact was a shrewd move. If we had introduced that issue before the election, it would have perturbed that process and probably allowed the hardliners in Iraq a stronger talking point, you know, that they were the ones who are going to stand up to the wicked Americans.

CONAN: There's also, as I understand it, we had David Sanger of the New York Times on the program a little while ago, and he said there's differing interpretations of the protocols under which when you are supposed to inform the IAEA about something. The old protocol said just before you put fuel into it, just before this process actually starts, and the new protocols say when you start to build it - that Iran accepted the new protocols and then decided that they didn't accept the new protocols and they were abiding by the old protocols.

Mr. DUELFER: That is exactly correct. And there's also a pattern of the Iranian behavior where they are, you know, days late in notifying that which you're supposed to notify to the IAEA in any number of cases. And there are a long standing of - there's a long list of outstanding issues which the Iranians still haven't satisfied that IAEA on the existing facility.

CONAN: Jeff, you had another question?

JEFF: I think you've answered it. I really appreciate it.

CONAN: Okay. Jeff, thanks very much for the call. And given, though, how long would it take if Iran really wanted to make it clear to the international community that its program was civilian in character? How would they go about it?

Mr. DUELFER: Well, in fact, the Iranians have a tough problem on that because they're in a sense haven't proven negative. But they can certainly build up a lot more confidence in the international community that they are not pursuing the weapons (unintelligible) by allowing access to these facilities and to the experts involved. The IAEA inspectors should have access to engineering drawings, to the plant plans, to throughput analyses. They should be able to question the people involved in it so that they know that in fact that the facility has been designed with the intention of producing the civilian-appropriate highly enriched or low-enriched uranium, not the weapons grade.

They can develop a lot of confidence by those types of activities as well as by being able to take samples in locations that are, you know, not just designated by Iran. That combination of things would bring a lot more confidence to the international community.

CONAN: And is that level of inspection imposed on or asked of any other country?

Mr. DUELFER: Well, certainly it was the case in Iraq. But as I mentioned that Iraq…

CONAN: Different circumstances.

Mr. DUELFER: …is a special case. Most other countries who are signatories to the NPT, who have this type of activity, are also submitting themselves to what is called the additional protocol, which Iran has refused to accept. So they are not allowing the IAEA the type of access that has been called for even under that agreement.

CONAN: We're talking with Charles Duelfer. His book is "Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Melanie(ph). Melanie with us from Baltimore.

MELANIE (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MELANIE: I have a question. The Russians admitted to having a number of missing nuclear weapons. Why couldn't Iran already have the, you know, some of the Russian nuclear weapons?

Mr. DUELFER: Well, I mean, sadly, you know, they could. I tend to doubt it, but - because their behavior would be different - but, you know, it's - this has been a constant theme of dialogue and effort between the United States and Russia over a decade, where they've been trying to, you know, help secure nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, account for weapons. You know, I think among national security experts, there's probably a consensus that Iran has not come into possession of those so-called loose nukes. But I think the problem with Iran is, you know, more of their own making.

CONAN: Thanks, Melanie.

MELANIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And one other question: You talked about the infrastructure to develop a nuclear weapon, and that involves a lot of different industrial processes, the most difficult of which, as I understand it, is figuring out how to enrich that uranium then design a warhead that will work. But - and it doesn't do you any good unless you can deliver that weapon somewhere. Are the Iranians working on that?

Mr. DUELFER: Neal, you raise the, sort of, the third leg of the tripod here of a nuclear program, and that is the long-range ballistic missiles. And bear in mind that Iran is much more advanced than Iraq ever was with respect to ballistic missiles. They have tested, you know, over a thousand-kilometer-range liquid-fuel missiles and now also a solid-fuel missile which is much more operationally useful to them.

A military analyst looks at a long-range missile like that and says it really doesn't make sense unless you've got a very large warhead. The accuracy over that long of a distance is not that great, where a conventional, high explosive type of warhead is going to do that much good. It makes much more sense if you've got a warhead that's nuclear and can, you know, do a lot damage over a broad area.

CONAN: So, accuracy is not - there's always a trade off between accuracy and explosive power: the more accurate your missile is, the less explosive it has to be.

Mr. DUELFER: And the longer range it is, the harder it is to make it accurate.

CONAN: Does all this - where are you? Do you come awake concluding that Iran is building a nuclear weapon?

Mr. DUELFER: I think my judgment would be that they certainly want to preserve the option. They appear to have a program which is, you know, designed to minimize the amount of warning that the international community would have, but whether in fact the - Khomeini has made that final decision to, you know, build a weapon, I think he's preserving the option to say yes or no. But the other aspect of Iran is, of course, political. You know, we tend to focus very narrowly on nuclear issues. But, you know, Iran is a country. It's a vibrant country with a vibrant population which is evolving. We saw what happened in the last election. This is a country which is not under the same kind of leadership that Iraq was. And so, when you look at the Iranian problems that it poses, there's a broader range of things we have to think about, not simply weapons inspectors, but there's these political issues as well.

CONAN: Charles Duelfer, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. DUELFER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Charles Duelfer, the former head of the CIA's Iraq WMD search in 2004, author of "Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq," now a consultant with Omnis Incorporated.

Up next, iWatch, a new community watch program asks the public to help spot terrorists in their neighborhood. We'll talk with William Bratton, the chief of the LAPD about what to look for. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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