Israel spied on Iran nuclear talks with U.S.

When Israel is described as one of America’s closest allies, maybe more emphasis should be placed on the term close than ally — as in too close, which would be to call Israel, America’s most intrusive, troublesome ally.

And this would explain why, as U.S. officials say: “The U.S. expends more counterintelligence resources fending off Israeli spy operations than any other close ally.”

What the following report speaks to is a conviction among Israeli leaders and their supporters — many of whom are American citizens — that Israel has a right to use any means available not merely to influence but rather to control and if needs be, to sabotage U.S. foreign policy.

The Wall Street Journal reports: Soon after the U.S. and other major powers entered negotiations last year to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks.

The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said. In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the officials said.

The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.

The U.S. and Israel, longtime allies who routinely swap information on security threats, sometimes operate behind the scenes like spy-versus-spy rivals. The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policy makers—a posture Israel takes when the tables are turned.

The White House discovered the operation, in fact, when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said.

Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers. European officials, particularly the French, also have been more transparent with Israel about the closed-door discussions than the Americans, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer early this year saw a rapidly closing window to increase pressure on Mr. Obama before a key deadline at the end of March, Israeli officials said.

Using levers of political influence unique to Israel, Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer calculated that a lobbying campaign in Congress before an announcement was made would improve the chances of killing or reshaping any deal. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli officials talk with French to try to influence Iran nuclear deal

The New York Times reports: Fearing that the Obama administration may not take what they consider to be a tough enough stand in the next round of negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran, senior Israeli officials held talks in Paris on Monday with senior members of the French government and will go to London on Tuesday in an attempt to influence the final terms of any agreement.

France and Britain are among the six world powers — along with the United States, Russia, China and Germany — that are negotiating with Iran on an accord that would require Tehran to submit to verifiable limitations on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of United Nations sanctions, as well as separate sets of sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume later this week in Lausanne, Switzerland, with negotiators working against a self-imposed deadline of March 31 to reach a preliminary agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet on Thursday with the chief Iranian negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and some of the foreign ministers from other countries are expected to arrive subsequently.

The Israeli intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, said in a statement released Monday night that the talks with the French national security adviser, Jacques Audibert, and the French nuclear negotiating team were “serious and profound” and that the Israelis had laid out their reservations about the emerging deal.

Mr. Steinitz indicated, however, that the Israelis had no illusions that their flurry of international meetings would stop an accord. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s hard-liners show restraint on nuclear talks with U.S.

The New York Times reports: A coterie of Iran’s hard-line Shiite Muslim clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders is usually vocal on the subject of the Iranian nuclear program, loudly proclaiming the country’s right to pursue its interests and angrily denouncing the United States.

But as the United States and Iran prepare to restart nuclear talks this week, the hard-liners have been keeping a low profile.

“They have been remarkably quiet,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group.

Their silence is a result of state policies intended by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to seriously try to find a solution through negotiations. Ayatollah Khamenei has largely supported the nuclear talks and the Iranian negotiators, whom he has called “good and caring people, who work for the country.”

The restraint by the hard-liners also reflects a general satisfaction, analysts say, with the direction of the talks and the successes Iran is enjoying, extending and deepening its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program continue in parallel with diplomacy

The New York Times reports: In late 2012, just as President Obama and his aides began secretly sketching out a diplomatic opening to Iran, American intelligence agencies were busy with a parallel initiative: The latest spy-vs.-spy move in the decade-long effort to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Investigators uncovered an Iranian businessman’s scheme to buy specialty aluminum tubing, a type the United States bans for export to Iran because it can be used in centrifuges that enrich uranium, the exact machines at the center of negotiations entering a crucial phase in Switzerland this week.

Rather than halt the shipment, court documents reveal, American agents switched the aluminum tubes for ones of an inferior grade. If installed in Iran’s giant underground production centers, they would have shredded apart, destroying the centrifuges as they revved up to supersonic speed.

But if negotiators succeed in reaching a deal with Iran, does the huge, covert sabotage effort by the United States, Israel and some European allies come to an end?

“Probably not,” said one senior official with knowledge of the program. In fact, a number of officials make the case that surveillance of Iran will intensify and covert action may become more important than ever to ensure that Iran does not import the critical materials that would enable it to accelerate the development of advanced centrifuges or pursue a covert path to a bomb. [Continue reading…]

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Iran nuclear talks lag, with status of new centrifuges another hurdle

The New York Times reports: A dispute over what limits should be placed on the development of new types of centrifuges has emerged as a major obstacle as negotiators try to work out an initial accord on Iran’s nuclear program, Western officials said on Thursday.

The negotiators’ goal has been to agree on the outlines of an accord by the end of March that would limit Iran’s nuclear program. A detailed and comprehensive agreement is to be completed by the end of June.

Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Thursday that while some progress had been made, the negotiators were still “pushing some tough issues.”

A European negotiator, who asked not to be named while discussing closed talks, was more skeptical, stressing that an accord would not be possible unless the Iranians showed significantly more flexibility over the coming days.

“We are not close to an agreement,” the official said. “We are not there at all.”

Western officials have suggested in recent weeks that the agreement six world powers are negotiating with Iran could allow it to retain and operate about 6,000 centrifuges. [Continue reading…]

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Why a ‘bad’ deal with Iran is better than no deal at all

Jeffrey Lewis writes: I am old enough to remember when, back in 2006, I argued that the United States should let Iran keep 164 centrifuges in standby mode during talks. Do you know what people said? “164 centrifuges? Are you mad? You are giving away the store to the Iranians!” Well, now Iran has more than 15,000 centrifuges (that we know about) in at least two sites.

One of the most frustrating things about following the past decade of negotiations is watching the West make one concession after another — but only after the Iranians had moved so far forward that the concession had no value. The people arguing now for a “better” deal at some later date are the same people who in 2006 said 164 centrifuges was way too many and, that if we just held out long enough, we’d haggle the Iranians down to zero. Look what that got us.

This is a fantasy, a unicorn, the futile pursuit of which ends with a half-assed airstrike against Iran, a region in flames, and eventually an Iranian nuclear weapon. And let’s be clear: If negotiations collapse, the United States will take the blame from Europe and the sanctions regime will unravel. And here’s the best-case scenario:

Any military action against Iran will set its nuclear program back, at best, a couple of years. But the anger will last generations. [Continue reading…]

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Did 47 U.S. senators just commit treason by attempting to sabotage Iran deal?

Bloomberg: The backlash continued Tuesday after 47 Republican senators sent a signed letter to Iran’s leaders warning them against cutting a nuclear deal with the Obama administration.

The letter, organized by Senator Tom Cotton, a freshman from Arkansas, warned Iran that “we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

The New York Daily News on Tuesday put photos of Cotton, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on its front page along with the boldfaced headline “TRAITORS.” [Continue reading…]

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Iran responds to the letter from Republican senators

Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Asked about the open letter of 47 US Senators to Iranian leaders, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Dr. Javad Zarif, responded that “in our view, this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy. It is very interesting that while negotiations are still in progress and while no agreement has been reached, some political pressure groups are so afraid even of the prospect of an agreement that they resort to unconventional methods, unprecedented in diplomatic history. This indicates that like Netanyahu, who considers peace as an existential threat, some are opposed to any agreement, regardless of its content.

Zarif expressed astonishment that some members of US Congress find it appropriate to write to leaders of another country against their own President and administration. He pointed out that from reading the open letter, it seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy.

Foreign Minister Zarif added that “I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by US domestic law. The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.

The Iranian Foreign Minister added that “Change of administration does not in any way relieve the next administration from international obligations undertaken by its predecessor in a possible agreement about Iran`s peaceful nuclear program.” He continued “I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with the stroke of a pen, as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.

He emphasized that if the current negotiation with P5+1 result in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it will not be a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US, but rather one that will be concluded with the participation of five other countries, including all permanent members of the Security Council, and will also be endorsed by a Security Council resolution. [Continue reading…]

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Iran: The Senate strikes back

Elizabeth Drew writes: Ever since Hurricane Bibi blew through Washington last week, advocates and opponents of a possible nuclear agreement with Iran have been assessing the damage. It’s clear that the traditional bipartisan approach toward Israel has been smashed. But the essential question is what effect Netanyahu’s visit will have on the the nuclear deal and above all, whether Congress, by bringing it to a direct vote as it now threatens, will reject it, thus ending a long effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and raising a long-term question as to whether US negotiators’ word amounts to anything.

Because the agreement — being negotiated by the Obama administration and fellow members of the P5+1 group –– isn’t a treaty, it doesn’t have to be approved by the Senate by a two-thirds vote. But since the existing strict economic sanctions on Iran were imposed by Congress, many members insist that they should have a voice in whether they can be lifted, as they would be in the agreement, in exchange for tight controls designed to prohibit Iran from developing nuclear weapons. What this is really about is whether Congress will have veto power over the agreement itself—a power that has become Netanyahu’s and other opponents’ chosen route for sinking a deal.

Hours after Netanyahu’s speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, apparently eager to capitalize on its rapturous reception by the mostly Republican audience, announced that he’d shortly move that the Senate immediately take up a resolution requiring a congressional vote on any agreement with Iran. This went against McConnell’s earlier pledge that the Senate would proceed according to the “regular order,” which would have meant that legislation had to be considered by the relevant committee, in this case Foreign Relations, before it could be brought to the floor; and two days later, he backed down after Democrats threatened to block the move. But this is most likely a temporary retreat on McConnell’s part. [Continue reading…]

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Why American public opinion is often not worth measuring

Five years ago, a CNN opinion poll of adult Americans asked:

Do you think Iran currently has nuclear weapons, or not?

71% of the respondents answered “Yes.” Only 3% expressed no opinion, which is to say, acknowledged that they didn’t know.

In the intervening period, as news of ongoing negotiations between Iran and the U.S. (and the rest of the P5+1) has occasionally captured the headlines, I guess a number of those who believed that Iran already has nuclear weapons have since deduced that there would be no negotiations taking place if indeed Iran was already nuclear armed.

The results of a poll released earlier this month indicated that a majority of Americans (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) now “support an agreement that would limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and impose additional intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions.”

And yet, another recent poll shows that an even larger majority of Americans believe a nuclear deal with Iran would make little difference in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Perhaps that’s because there are still a lot of Americans who believe Iran already possesses nuclear weapons.

As much as anything, the information opinion polls gather says as much about the questions as the answers.

If I was a pollster, I’d be tempted to ask questions like this:

Have you tried the new energy drink, P5+1?

Do you think it tastes better than P5?

I’d also present a questionnaire to all members of Congress, asking:

What does the “P” in P5+1 refer to?
a) Peerless
b) Protestant
c) Permanent
d) Piquant
e) Don’t know

And who is the 1?
a) Israel
b) North Korea
c) Germany
d) United States
e) Don’t know

But seriously, the professional pollsters could provide a valuable public service if they simply prefaced every attempt to gather public opinion by underlining the value of answering, “don’t know,” when that’s really the truth.

With some gentle coaxing, we might find that Americans are not as delusional as they often appear. They’re simply afraid of revealing how little they know.

If people were less embarrassed about intentionally exposing their ignorance, then polls might more than anything else highlight the degree to the United States is a dysfunctional democracy in which the media, political, and educational systems are failing to sustain an informed citizenry.

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The danger of a failed Iran deal

Gary Sick writes: In national security policy, you must always be careful what you wish for. Policies with short-term appeal often come with disagreeable longer-term consequences. And that may be exactly what is happening on Capitol Hill as politicians line up against a nuclear deal with Iran.

Today, there are many who are prepared to reject a negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran on the grounds that a return to coercive pressure and isolation will ensure the elimination of the entire Iranian nuclear capability and extend that “zero probability” of a nuclear weapon into the indefinite future. This is close to the position that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out in his speech to Congress last week.

Certainly, turning back the clock and eliminating every aspect of nuclear know-how in Iran would be desirable. But proponents of an even more coercive policy should recognize that if they get their wish, they may create a security threat far greater than the limited threat they are now trying to prevent. [Continue reading…]

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What Netanyahu left out of his speech to Congress

Gary Sick lists five significant omissions: 1. Iran has dramatically reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium. Remember Bibi’s cartoon bomb that was going to go off last summer? Well, it has been drained of fuel, and that will probably continue to be true indefinitely. No mention.

2. Inspections will continue long after the nominal 10-year point, contrary to his claim that everything expires in ten years. No mention.

3. The heavy water reactor at Arak will be permanently modified, so it produces near zero plutonium. Not only did he not mention it, but he listed the reactor and plutonium as one of his threats.

4. His repeated assertion that Iran is actively seeking nuclear weapons ignores the judgment “with high confidence” of both American and Israeli intelligence that Iran has taken no decision to build nuclear weapons. It also contradicts the repeated findings of the IAEA that no materials have been diverted for military purposes.

5. All the major countries of the world are co-negotiators with the United States, so a U.S. congressional intervention that killed the deal will not only affect us but all of our major allies. If we stiff them, there is no reason to believe the international sanctions will hold for long. No mention.

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Rouhani: people are too clever to listen to ‘war-mongering’ Netanyahu

The Guardian: The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has reacted to Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress by saying that the world and the American people are too intelligent to take advice from “an aggressive and occupier regime” that has itself developed an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

“The world is happy with the progress in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1,” Rouhani said in a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, speaking about the nuclear talks between Iran and the US, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain. “Only one aggressive and occupier regime [Israel] is angry with the talks because it sees its existence tied with war and occupation.”

Rouhani said: “People of the world and America are too smart to take advice from such a war-mongering regime … which has pursued, produced and stockpiled a large number of atomic bombs in violation of international laws and away from the eyes of international inspectors.” Rouhani was referring to the fact that Israel, unlike Iran, has not signed the treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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Majority of Americans support nuclear deal with Iran

PRNewswire: Negotiations over a proposed deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program are coming to a head while a new study finds a clear majority of Americans – 61 percent – support an agreement that would limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and impose additional intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions. This included 61 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents.

The alternative option, being promoted by some members of Congress, calls for ending the current negotiations, and increasing sanctions in an effort to get Iran to stop all uranium enrichment. This approach was recommended by 36 percent.

The study was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, with Steven Kull and Shibley Telhami as principal investigators. It was fielded with a representative sample of 710 Americans drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel.

The deal endorsed by a majority specified that Iran could enrich uranium only to the level necessary for nuclear energy, and provided that it accepts intrusive inspections to ensure that Iran is not building nuclear weapons. Some sanctions would be gradually removed, provided that Iran upholds the agreement.

“Americans find convincing the arguments for making a deal as well as for ending the negotiations and ramping up sanctions,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation. “But when asked to finally decide, a clear majority breaks in favor of a deal.” [Continue reading…]

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Netanyahu agitating for war against Iran

Fred Kaplan writes: Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress on Tuesday was a disturbing spectacle: shallow, evasive, short on logic, and long on cynicism.

The Israeli prime minister pretended to criticize the specific deal that the United States and five other nations are currently negotiating with Iran, but it’s clear from his words that he opposes any deal that falls short of Iran’s total disarmament and regime change. He pretended merely to push for a “better deal,” but he actually was agitating for war.

At the start of his speech, he played nice, thanking President Obama for the generous bounty of security assistance, the rescues from embassy sieges, the shipment of Iron Dome missile-defense batteries (which probably saved hundreds of Israeli lives from Hamas rocket attacks), and for his help in other programs so highly classified that they cannot be mentioned.

But this had all the sincerity of Mark Antony coming to praise Caesar, not to bury him. The burying soon commenced. [Continue reading…]

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Iran calls Obama’s 10-year nuclear demand ‘unacceptable’

Reuters: Iran on Tuesday rejected as “unacceptable” U.S. President Barack Obama’s demand that it freeze sensitive nuclear activities for at least 10 years, but said it would continue talks aimed at securing a deal, Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported.

“Iran will not accept excessive and illogical demands,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted as saying by Fars.

“Obama’s stance … is expressed in unacceptable and threatening phrases … ,” he reportedly said, adding that negotiations underway in Switzerland would nonetheless carry on.

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Ex-Mossad chief: Netanyahu has caused Israel ‘strategic damage’ on Iran

Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer interviewed ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan: Dagan isn’t exactly a leftist; anyone familiar with his biography will testify to this. When it comes to Iran, he shares Netanyahu’s concerns. “A nuclear Iran is a reality that Israel won’t be able to come to terms with,” he said.

But Dagan believes that Netanyahu, because of the way he is handling the issue, is only bringing us closer to this harsh reality. “The person that has caused Israel the most strategic damage when it comes to the Iranian issue is the prime minister,” he told us.

The White House, we said, has announced that it will stop sharing with Israel classified information pertaining to the negotiations with Iran. In your experience, does such a decision trickle down to our relations with the US administration on all levels?

“Yes,” Dagan said, “and it happens very quickly. The head of the CIA is a political appointee; the national security adviser is a political appointee; the secretary of state is a political appointee. They all, the lower-level officials too, work in keeping with the spirit of their commander. We’ve witnessed this phenomenon during confrontations in the past, with the (Jonathan) Pollard case, for example. We depend on the Americans for strategic weapons. When senior administration officials say that Israel is acting against the national interests of the United States, it represents a grave long-term danger for us.

“What message does it send when our prime minister says that we don’t need information from the talks and that we have our own sources? Is he implying that we are spying on the United States?

“Our standing in the world isn’t that great right now. The question of Israel’s legitimacy is on the agenda. We shouldn’t be gnawing away at our relations with our most important ally – certainly not in public and certainly not by getting involved in American domestic politics. This is not the kind of behaviour one expects from a prime minister.”

Most Israelis breathed a sigh of relief following Operation Protective Edge in the summer; and then came the sense of disappointment – after 51 days of fighting, one could have expected a little more than a stalemate when up against an organization like Hamas. Dagan reached a different and much harsher conclusion. The operation was a “resounding failure,” in his view. “What did we achieve?” he continued. “Nothing, except a ceasefire that Hamas will violate whenever it chooses.

Dagan is convinced that the current status quo poses a danger to Israel. We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, he said. “Netanyahu’s actions are leading us towards a bi-national state, and I don’t want a bi-national state. I don’t want Abbas as the prime minister of my country. Continuing to establish facts on the ground in the territories will inevitably lead us to an apartheid state.”

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U.S. officials say Israel is distorting reality of Iran talks

The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration on Wednesday accused the Israeli government of misleading the public over the Iran nuclear negotiations, using unusually blunt and terse language that once again highlighted the rift between the two sides.

In briefings with reporters, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki and White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Israeli officials were not being truthful about how the United States is handling the secretive talks.

“I think it is safe to say not everything you are hearing from the Israeli government is an accurate reflection of the details of the talks,” said Psaki, who acknowledged that the State Department is withholding some details from the Israelis out of concern they will share them more broadly.

Earnest said U.S. officials routinely speak with their Israeli counterparts. But, he added, the administration “is not going to be in a position of negotiating this agreement in public, particularly when we see that there is a continued practice of cherry-picking specific pieces of information and using them out of context to distort the negotiating position of the United States.” [Continue reading…]

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