Consequences of Iran’s March Elections: A Study of Political Change in the Islamic Republic

Preface
In March of 2008 Iran held parliamentary level elections.  The Majles (Iran’s legislature) elections were heavily vetted in the weeks before the election.  Once vetted however, they appear to have run fair, unlike the June 2009 presidential elections.  I wrote “Consequences of Iran’s March Elections” in the Spring of 2008, beginning research the month before the election and finishing writing two months after the election.   Before the election I identified factions competing within the political establishment and explored the history of factionalism in the Islamic Republic.  The common portrayal of Iranian politics being a struggle between reformists and hardliners is too simplistic and causes the observer to overlook real disagreements within the political elite.  After the election I interpreted the results and made predictions about the direction Iranian politics would take in the following year.President Ahmedinejad’s policies over the previous three years had broken the consensus of the conservative elites and I predicted he would not win reelection in June 2009.  I had expected another conservative politician to take the helm in 2009 and attempt to cover up the divisions within the elites.  It is pure speculation on my part, but perhaps Mohsen Rezaei was intended for this role, at least until it became clear to the IRGC that Mir Hossein Mousavi posed a serious challenge.  While vetting candidates has always been part of politics, outright fraud like that committed last June was generally unknown.  Because of the resort to fraud, Ahmedinejad’s reelection sets a dangerous precedent for politics in Iran.  While general consensus among elites and some veneer of popular legitimacy may have once been required to hold office, June 2009 proved that strong ties to the Revolutionary Guards is all that is needed now.

Dana Alexander Gray, January 20, 2010

Consequences of Iran’s March Elections

A Study of Political Change in the Islamic Republic

Introduction

Mach 14th 2008 outside observers and Iranians watched grimly as conservative candidates dominated heavily vetted elections for Iran’s parliament or Majles. In the weeks before the election the conservative Guardian Council, charged with preserving the Islamic nature of the republic, barred thousands of so-called reformist candidates from running for office. The vetting ensured that the reformists could hope to take at most only 10 percent of the seats in the Majles and gave an easy win to conservatives.1 The international community was quick to condemn the elections that seemed rigged against Iran’s best hope for a truly representative government. But what were these elections about? Who won? And what larger changes do they foreshadow? This study aims to understand the 2008 Majles elections and predict what developments these elections signify for Iran.

Background

Before we can realize the significance of Iran’s elections or predict what policy changes they may bring, we must first outline the history of factionalism in Iran. Iran, while not entirely democratic, isn’t a one-man or one-party dictatorship either; factions and distinct ideologies have vied for influence since the Islamic Republic’s inception. The elites of the Islamic Republic are often closely related by blood or marriage, so infighting assumes mostly a non-violent nature of which elections are one part.2  Over the last 30 years the elites of Iran have undergone several changes, transforming them into the present day factions that competed in the election.

The clerics who consolidated their power after 1979 could all be considered to belong to the broad category of radical Islamists, meaning they see Islam as a comprehensive ideology that regulates all aspects of life, and couple with this a high regard for modern methods of realizing political aspirations. This contrasts to traditional Islamists who believe Islam provides a comprehensive framework for public life but avoid modern forms of political expression.3 Within the context of Iran these radical Islamist clerics were further divided among three groups: leftists, pragmatists, and conservatives. Throughout the 80’s the leftist group held the upper hand with the support of the Supreme Leader but upon Khomeini’s death in 1989 factionalism would break free and reshuffle politics. Rafsanjani, the ambitious and powerful pragmatist president, aligned himself with conservatives to use the vetting power of the Council of Guardians to purge the system of the leftist radical Islamists in the 1992 elections.4

After being barred from political participation the leftist radical Islamists made a surprising transition to modernist Islamism. That is, they saw still saw Islam as a guiding principle to public life but were in favor of reinterpreting Islamic principals to accommodate social changes brought on by modernity. They took influence from self-proclaimed post-Islamist intellectuals like Abdolkarim Soroush who believed that to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic popular will must be given greater expression in the government. Their avocations for civil society and rule of law recast these metamorphosed leftist radical Islamists as reformists. Their support came from deepening popular dissatisfaction with the regime as it became clear that the just and fair society Khomeini had promised was nothing more than a dream. At the same time that the reformists were emerging, the conservatives and pragmatists were falling out with each other over how to deal with Iran’s economic difficulties brought on by international isolation and the drawn-out war with Iraq. In 1996 The pragmatists reconstituted as the Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (Executives of Construction) surprisingly gained the support of a majority in the Majles running on a strictly economic, not Islamist platform.5

It was in this atmosphere that Ayatollah Khatami emerged as president of the Islamic Republic. The reformist politician had been purged from politics five years earlier by Rafsanjani and the conservatives but now received the full support of the reconstituted pragmatists in the 1997 election and won a landslide victory on a platform of rule of law, civil society, and economic prosperity. The Kargozaran-e Sazandegi, instrumental to Khatami’s victory, split after soon after Khatami’s election, some swung towards the conservatives, and some sided with the reformists.6

Three years later Khatami’s reformist faction, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, took a majority in the Majles, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Albright to make overtures to Iran. But the seeming liberalization of Iranian politics was short-lived as conservatives, who controlled nearly all the unelected institutions in Iran, began to clamp down on the elected reformists. Conservatives used the Guardian Council’s power over the Majles to veto reformist legislation that would have increased the power of elected institutions and drove reformist political activists from the public arena through imprisonment and in a few cases assassination.7  The conservative controlled Press Court closed publications and imprisoned journalists in the widest wave of censorship since the revolution. By the time of 2004 Majles elections the elected reformists had lost the public’s confidence in their ability to implement any change.8

The 2004 Majles elections saw a return to the 1992 vetting practices to purge the public sphere. The Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council barred 5,000 candidates from running, including 76 sitting Majles members. The mass disqualification of reformist candidates caused all but one reformist party, Rouhaniun Morbarez, to boycott the election. The 2004 Majles saw the number seats held by reformists cut from 130 to 40. Conservatives and independents aligned with them took 240 seats.9  The curtain rises on the 2008 Majles with the political factions looking much the same as in 2004. Most of the high profile reformists and their pragmatist allies from the Khatami era were barred from running and the candidates who did run would all have been part of the conservative coalition in 2004 that supported Ahmedinejad after his election in 2005. This time however, a rift between the conservatives has returned vigorous factionalism to Iranian politics.

Analysis – Who won the election?

Distribution of seats in the 8th Majles10

Faction Seats
Jebheh Mottahed Osulgarayan (pro-Ahmadinejad) 59
E’telaf-e Faragir-e Osulgarayan (led by Ali Larinjani) 36
Combined list of both factions 44
Reformists (Khatami and Karrubi) 24
Independents 49
Minorities 10

After the run-off elections Ahmedinejad’s definite supporters held only 59 seats or roughly a quarter of the Majles. They are often referred to as hard-liners because of their close adherence to Khomeini’s ideology of radical Islam. They see the past and present failings of the Islamic Republic not due to excesses of ideology as pragmatists or reformists might have it, but because leaders have not adhered closely enough to revolutionary ideology.11  A clear illustration of this was when in 2006 as part of a domestic row aimed at isolating moderates, Rafsanjani was made to publicly defend his role in persuading Khomeini to end the war with Iraq. The decision to accept UNSCR 598, which was ultimately made by Khomeini, was Iran’s first big step towards a pragmatic foreign policy and Rafsanjani and his supporters defended the decision as a realistic appraisal of Iran’s international situation. Hard-liners attacked him for “lack of wisdom and commitment,” indicating the failure was to not continue the war and to accept a ceasefire at the expense of revolutionary ideology.12

Conservative critics of Ahmedinejad coalesced around three figures, former nuclear negotiator Ali Larinjani, Tehran Mayor and likely 2009 presidential candidate Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, and Revolutionary Guard Commander Mohsen Rezaei. In their speeches these conservatives tend to stress Iranian nationalism rather than Islamic identity and take a pragmatic rather than ideological approach to foreign policy.13  They see American regional power diminishing, but easing relations with that power, not antagonizing it, is surest the way for Iran to reach regional preeminence.14  In many ways they are a reaction to the populism of Ahmedinejad, preferring negotiated decisions among the elite. A campaign promise is to increase the role of the Majles in diplomacy, a clear rebuff of Ahmedinejad’s demagogic style.

The final contestants in the 2008 Majles elections were of course the beleaguered reformists led by high profile clerics Khameni and Karroubi. The target of most of the vetting, the reformists have held onto only 24 seats, compared to 40 seats in the 2004 election which most reformists boycotted. This year, even when at best the reformists could win 10% of the Majles’ seats after the vetting, reformists leaders urged participation instead of boycott and lobbied the Supreme Leader to reverse the Guardian Council’s ruling.15  If reformists maintain a presence in the Majles their opponents can not easily dismiss them as agitators who reject the principles of the Islamic Republic and they will be able to field a candidate for next year’s presidential election.

What brought voters to the polls was the economic crisis gripping Iran. Whatever the difference in foreign policy the various contending groups hold, domestic issues have always been what mobilize Iranian voters.16  With this in mind it’s clear why the various candidates did not distinguish themselves on the issues that put Iran in the eyes of the international press, such as Iran’s controversial nuclear program. It is not that the whole population agrees on nuclear power; but that the government has insisted upon pursuing it and people have little interest in it.17  Similarly, Iran’s involvement in Iraq, supporting Shi’a political parties to assure another Saddam Hussein doesn’t come to power and threaten Iran, doesn’t hold great draw to the average voter. The only way that the stances politicians take on either of these issues could effect the votes they receive would be if these issues brought home such costs to the Iranian economy that they could be singled out among all the various other programs as the cause of unemployment, inflation, and higher costs of living.18

Even though the conservative critics posed a clear threat to Ahmedinejad, they were not barred from competing in the election. Thus we cannot conclude, as some observers do, that the Guardian Council is acting specifically to protect Ahmedinejad.19  With the current distribution of seats in the Majles, Larinjani and his allies have the potential to out vote Ahmedinejad’s supporters if they can appeal to independents and the few lingering reformists. This potential majority may express itself in the coming weeks as new economic plans aimed at curbing inflation, or pulling the plug on failing plans advocated by Ahmedinejad. Since the Guardian Council allowed this obvious threat to exist in potential, there is no reason to think they would leap to Ahmedinejad’s aid should it manifest and veto any legislation proposed by his conservative critics.

The political divisions displayed in the Majles election illustrate an important principle of the Islamic Republic; factionalism is the rule and the elites resist being consolidated. Before Ahmedinejad’s election as president in 2005 Iran’s conservatives could only repress arbitrarily, a few official institutions still lay out of their direct control. But when all the institutions of the Islamic Republic came entirely under hard-liner control it seemed possible that systemic repression would lead Iran closer to dictatorship or single party rule. The splintering of the 2004 Majles conservative bloc shows that even under conditions most likely to bring dictatorship, Iran’s elites will vie for power.20

Analysis – Domestic Policy Changes

As stated earlier, the main issue of the March election was the government’s handling of Iran’s economic crisis. In his attempt to spread oil wealth to the less fortunate, Ahmedinejad increased government spending and caused prices and inflation to soar. In fact Iran is the only large oil producing country that has seen its economic condition worsen despite oil prices tripling in the last few years.21  The Majles will certainly address this issue and probably block fresh spending for Ahmedinejad. The Majles is also so split now that no faction holds an absolute majority needed to push through legislation on its own. Any economic initiatives that come from the Majles would have to involve both the conservatives against Ahmedinejad, a number of independents, and possibly reformists.

If the Majles remains too fractured to pass any meaningful legislation then the March election may simply serve as what many analysts are calling it, a sign of discontent with Ahmedinejad. Should this be the case, real economic recovery will have to wait until 2009 when the next president is chosen. If the elections are interpreted by the regime as a sign of discontent with Ahmedinejad’s policies, and this seems to be the case, the regime likely will drop for Ahmedinejad in 2009.22

Unfortunately, one thing that the conservative factions have no disagreement upon is repressing challenges to their rule. They have no interest the social openness advocated by Ayatollah Khatemi and will likely work together to suppress any movements aimed towards greater representation or institutional reform. The conservative camps together hold an easy majority with 139 seats, and will likely use it to further curtail personal freedoms for Iranians.

Analysis – Foreign Policy Changes

Foreign policy is not an issue that mobilizes voters in Iran, yet Iran’s regime has pursued a steadily more pragmatic foreign policy since its initial revolutionary zeal. Even before the death of Khomeini, the impact of ideology on Iranian foreign policy had declined. This is largely because the regime is well aware that the public is only willing to sacrifice so much in the pursuit of ideological foreign policy goals.23  In 1988 Khomeini accepted the ceasefire with Iraq called for by UN Security Council Resolution 598 when it became apparent that Iran’s people would no longer support the war Khomeini had originally promised to wage at any cost until Saddam fell.24

The economic needs of post-war Iran also trumped revolutionary ideological goals directed towards the conservative gulf monarchies. A few years after Iran organized demonstrations during the 1987 Hajj aimed at undermining the house of Saud, then-President Rafsanjani publicly expressed acceptance of, and desire for good relations with the Gulf States. Support for revolutionary movements in the Gulf States was terminated and relations were normalized.25  Since normalizing relations in the early 90s, Iran’s dealings with the Gulf States have been aimed at building economic ties with the hopes of making the Gulf States reliant on Iran for critical resources, such as low cost water, that would make the Gulf States think twice about supporting U.S. actions against the Islamic Republic. Iran’s long term-hopes for its relations with the Gulf States is to replace their reliance on the United States for security in the Persian Gulf and come to a new regional arrangement. This is unlikely because Iran can not offer the same security guarantees that the United States gives to the Arab monarchs and the conservative Gulf States would likely pay high costs in American aid for siding with Iran.26

Today Iran’s leadership is faced with a similar weary public as after the war with Iraq. With conservative critics of President Ahmedinejad winning seats in the Majles it seems the regime, though willing to silence its own critics and bar them from office, has given considerable latitude to those of the president. By giving what appears to be Carte Blanc to conservative criticism of Ahmedinejad the regime is indicating that it is ready to drop him and his confrontational rhetoric if the costs to Iran in sanctions and isolation become more than the public can bear.27

The difference between the foreign policies of Ahmedinejad and his critics goes beyond mere rhetoric. Former nuclear negotiator Ali Larinjani who was sacked by Ahmedinejad favored talks with both Europe and the International Atomic Energy Agency over the nuclear program while his successor, a close ally of Ahmedinejad, Saeed Jalili insists Iran will only work with the IAEA. While Jalili makes this demand with some justification, the IAEA is the international agency specifically designed for this very issue, this uncompromising position alienates potential supporters of Iran’s nuclear effort. During his fist interview since being fired as nuclear negotiator, Larinjani expressed his belief that Ahmedinejad’s intentionally confrontational approach to the nuclear issue is what has brought the matter before the UN Security Council while Larinjani’s diplomatic efforts would likely have found a solution without suspending enrichment.28  Larinjani and the conservative faction he represents are operating much like the pragmatists after the war with Iraq. Iran can’t afford to alienate possible allies with belligerent ideology. If Iran pursues an isolated and confrontational stance, it may again have to drink a chalice of poison.

Conclusions – Ahmedinejad for President?

The Majles elections show Ahmedinejad has lost favor among the Islamic Republic’s elite. Many analysts point to this alone being good reason to suspect Ahmedinejad will be out of the running for the next election. But Ahmedinejad did not win his first election by appealing to the elites. It was popular support from traditional Iranians in the heart of the country that propelled him into office in 2005.29  Therefore, before we can count Ahmedinejad out of the running for the next presidential race we should see how he has fared among his constituency.

Ahmedinejad was elected on campaign promises to reduce the disparity of wealth between rich and poor in Iran. But in the fourth year of his presidency the social justice he promised has not materialized. The economy is worse than ever and those effected by the harsh conditions complain that Ahmedinejad’s stop gap measures, such as forcing banks to give low interest loans, are only attainable for people with connections.30  While it’s no question that many Iranians see him as a well-intentioned leader they identify with, Ahmedinejad’s failure to improve the lives of ordinary Iranians has taken it’s toll. Ahmedinejad’s slipping popularity became evident in last year’s municipal election when the President’s endorsed list of candidates was boycotted at the polls. This year Ahmedinejad endorsed no candidate list and both fundamentalist lists that include candidates associated with him are openly critical of the government’s economic policies. The crowds that Ahmedinejad relied upon to support his measures and push through his policies are no longer responding.31

Ahmedinejad’s failures with the public have made him stop holding large public meetings on his tours to the countryside. Instead he meets with local leaders in private.32  This signals that he is no longer acting like the populist that won the 2005 presidency, and expects that the system will preserve him. Unfortunately for Ahmedinejad his presidency ran against the greater trend of Iranian politics and failed to produce result. He has become too great a liability for the regime and many other acceptable candidates are willing to take his job.

Conclusions – Relations with America

America’s two clashing points with Iran have been the nuclear program, which the US claim is directed at weapons, and causing unrest in Iraq. These issues may see some tension slackened with the political changes in Iran. On the nuclear issue the United States would see some of its fears allayed, but it would have to accept a back seat role in bringing about compromise. Ahmedinejad’s critics are more open to a negotiated compromise that allows closely supervised low level uranium enrichment.33  But such a compromise would only be reached through talks with the IAEA and the European Union. The rising conservatives are just as mistrusting of the United States’ intentions as Ahmedinejad. The new government in Iran will likely refuse to discuss their nuclear program with America.

Iraq may be the destined place for American/Iranian cooperation. In their attempts to stabilize Iraq democratically, the United States must support the Shi’a dominated government that is also pro-Iran. Long before the American’s approached exiled Iraqi Dawa party members, Iran was providing them with haven from Saddam. The frequent exchanges between elites, and their trust in each other have strengthened ties between the neighbors.34  The Iraqi government recently defended Iran against US charges that the Islamic Republic had been working to cause unrest. And for their own security they now are urging their two primary supporters to enter talks.35  Iran’s new conservatives would not be against talks with the United States, but they are no eager idealists and will likely extract a price for assisting the United States in Iraq.36  This would probably take the form of withdrawing the US military instead of establishing permanent bases in Iraq, something that the current US administration would likely not oblige the Iranians.

Conclusions – Future of the Islamic Republic

If we take the new conservatives’ statements to heart we might say the Islamic republic is becoming less authoritarian if not more democratic. Larinjani hopes to give a greater role to the Majles in determining Iran’s future.37  While he has no problem vetting candidates that seem too liberal, any changes to increase the power of the Majles may have further reaching impacts than the immediate gain in influence Larinjani would enjoy. The narrow choices given to Iran’s people would begin to count for more and this may give the institutional leverage that would allow reform to succeed if reformists were able to run in politics again.

The effects of the reforms initiated by Khatami and his allies in the late 90s cannot be undone by the waves of repression that have followed in this decade. The democratic experimentation, though limited and short lived, left a lasting impression of what a progressive and forward-thinking Islamic Republic can be.38 This has given greater expectations inside Iran for free society that goes beyond the results of a single election. If the Islamic Republic is meant to survive, these expectations will ultimately have the greater hand in sculpting Iranian society than any oppression heaped upon its people.

 

  1. Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Reformists barred from fighting Iran elections,” Financial Times (7 Feb. 2008).
  2. Masoud Kazemzadeh, “Intra-Elite Factionalism and the 2004 Majles Elections in Iran,” Middle Eastern Studies 44, no. 2 (2008): 192.
  3. Bahram Rajaee, “Deciphering Iran: The Political Evolution of the Islamic Republic and U.S. Foreign Policy After September 11,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24, no. 1 (2004): 160.
  4. Masoud Kazemzadeh, “Intra-Elite Factionalism and the 2004 Majles Elections in Iran,” Middle Eastern Studies 44, no. 2 (2008): 192.
  5. Bahram Rajaee, “Deciphering Iran: The Political Evolution of the Islamic Republic and U.S. Foreign Policy After September 11,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24, no. 1 (2004): 163.
  6. Robin Wright, “Iran’s New Revolution,” Foreign Affairs 79, no. 1 (2000): 137.
  7. Puneet Talwar, “Iran in the Balance,” Foreign Affairs, 80, no. 4 (2001):62-63.
  8. Bahram Rajaee, “Deciphering Iran: The Political Evolution of the Islamic Republic and U.S. Foreign Policy After September 11,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24, no. 1 (2004): 164.
  9. Masoud Kazemzadeh, “Intra-Elite Factionalism and the 2004 Majles Elections in Iran,” Middle Eastern Studies 44, no. 2 (2008): 203.
  10. Rasool Nafisi, “Iran’s majlis elections: signals of change,” Payvand’s Iran News (18 Apr. 2008). http://www.payvand.com/news/08/apr/1180.html
  11. Kamran Taremi, “Iranian Perspectives on Security in the Persian Gulf,” Iranian Studies 36, no. 3 (2003): 382.
  12. Nazila Fathi, “An Old Letter Casts Doubts On Iran’s Goal For Uranium,” New York Times (5 Oct. 2006).
  13. Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Nuclear plans are peaceful, says Larijani,” Financial Times (20 Feb. 2008).
  14. Ray Takeyh, “Time for Détente With Iran,” Foreign Affairs 86, no. 2 (2007).
  15. Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Reformist cleric refuses to budge,” Financial Times (13 Feb. 2008).
  16. Karim Sadjapour, “How Relevant is the Iranian Street?” The Washington Quarterly 30, no. 1 (2007): 152.
  17. Anna Fifield, “Nuclear ambition rises above domestic debate,” Financial Times (20 Feb. 2008).
  18. Karim Sadjapour, “How Relevant is the Iranian Street?” The Washington Quarterly 30, no. 1 (2007): 160.
  19. “Ahmadi-Nejad will face big challenges Iran’s flawed elections will not end the power struggle,” Financial Times (17 Mar. 2008).
  20. Masoud Kazemzadeh, “Intra-Elite Factionalism and the 2004 Majles Elections in Iran,” Middle Eastern Studies 44, no. 2 (2008): 210.
  21. Anna Fifield, “Iran suffers as a generation goes in search of a job,” Financial Times (30 Jan. 2008).
  22. “New parliament, new policies?; Iran,” The Economist (23 Feb. 2008).
  23. Karim Sadjapour, “How Relevant is the Iranian Street?” The Washington Quarterly 30, no. 1 (2007): 160.
  24. Nikki Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006): 259
  25. Kamran Taremi, “Iranian Perspectives on Security in the Persian Gulf,” Iranian Studies 36, no. 3 (2003): 389.
  26. Kamran Taremi, “The Role of Water Exports in Iranian Foreign Policy towards the GCC,” Iranian Studies 38, no. 2(2005): 321.
  27. Karim Sadjapour, “How Relevant is the Iranian Street?” The Washington Quarterly 30, no. 1 (2007): 160.
  28. Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Nuclear plans are peaceful, says Larijani,” Financial Times (20 Feb. 2008).
  29. Bernard Hourcade, “In the Heart of Iran,” Middle East Report 241 (2006): 10-11.
  30. Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “President a hostage to his promises,” Financial Times (28 Feb. 2008).
  31. Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Roula Khalaf, “Back to fundamentals Iran’s conservatives contest and economic election,” Financial Times (12 Mar. 2008).
  32. Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “President a hostage to his promises,” Financial Times (28 Feb. 2008).
  33. Joseph Cirincione and Ray Takeyh, “ElBaradei is quietly managing to disarm Iran,” Financial Times (27 Feb. 2008).
  34. Najmeh Bozorgmehr, N., Roula Khalaf, R., & Steve Negus, S. (2008, March 3). Iran leader defies US with visit to Baghdad. Financial Times, p. 7. Retrieved March 23, 2008 from LexisNexis database.
  35. “Iraq urges US and Iran to Talk,” Al-Jazeera News Agency (7 May 2008). http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/2A9FBF2E-C59D-4066-AB61-858C79D5A6B2.htm
  36. “Today’s task is to mend broken Iraq Despite US triumphalism there are no good options left,” Financial Times (20 Mar. 2008).
  37. “New parliament, new policies?; Iran,” The Economist (23 Feb. 2008).
  38. Jahangir Amuzegar, “Iran’s Crumbling Revolution,” Foreign Affairs 82, no. 1 (2003).
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