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Background Briefing on P5+1 Talks

Background Briefing on P5+1 Talks

Special Briefing
Senior U.S. Administration Official
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
May 16, 2014

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As per usual, this is all going to be on background as a Senior U.S. Administration Official. I think you all know me, but for those of you who don’t, I’m [name and title withheld].

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, is it not on?

QUESTION: There you go.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Is it on now? Oh. Sorry, do you want me to start over? Okay.

So per usual this is, again, all on background. I think most of you know me, our team as well. And again, this is not going to be the usual way we do things, but I will make a few opening remarks, and then I’m happy to open it up for your questions.

So as you know, this round of talks has wrapped up and the delegations have started leaving to return to capitals. I’m going to make a few points about what happened in the round, and then, as I said, happy to open it up to your questions.

Unlike the previous rounds, we are now in the drafting and negotiating phase, which is very different than the previous rounds. And this is really an ongoing process and will be an ongoing process. There are no longer discrete rounds with opening and closing sessions, discrete set agendas. All the issues are on the table and we are negotiating on all of them.

As we’ve said, it’s not really appropriate to assess where the negotiations are at each moment, but suffice to say again all the issues are on the table and are being discussed in an integrated and an interdependent way.

The discussions this week have been useful, but they’ve also been at times difficult, which they knew – we knew they would be. We’ve said this repeatedly throughout this process, that this would be difficult. We are just at the beginning of the drafting process, and we have a significant way to go. There are significant gaps. These are complicated issues. As we’ve said, if this were easy to solve, it would have been done a long time ago.

This has, candidly, been a very slow and difficult process, and we are concerned with the short amount of time that is left. But let me be very clear: We believe we can still get it done. It’s important to remember that we’re at the beginning, and the parties are all at the table talking in a serious way. But we do not know yet, as we’ve always said, if we will be able at the end of this to conclude a comprehensive agreement.

In any negotiation there are good days and bad days, and there are ups and downs. This has been a moment of great difficulty, but one that was not entirely unexpected. If you remember, we had moments like this one when we were negotiating the Joint Plan of Action as well. Many of you wrote in those moments that you didn’t know if we would be able to get this done, and you saw how that turned out. So again, not entirely unexpected; we knew this would happen.

We’re focused now on how the process proceeds with the next step and how the discussions go from here. We will be back in June talking at the political director level. I’ll let the EU announce the dates for that. And our experts will continue talking, as they do all the time every day about these issues.

Everyone is serious here. We know that. But we believe there needs to be some additional realism at this point. As I said, significant gaps remain. We need to see more progress being made. Time is not unlimited here, and we’re still tracking towards the July 20th date to see if we can get this done.

As we’ve said repeatedly and I will remind folks many times over the coming months, what we’re looking for in a comprehensive agreement is a package, not a checklist. We’re focused on how all of the elements fit together to ensure Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is for entirely peaceful purposes.

And as we have always been clear, we will take the time to do this right. We will not rush into a bad deal. As the President and the Secretary and many other people have said, no deal is better than a bad deal. We know this will take time. We are committed to working to see if we can get it done.

QUESTION: Paul Richter with LA Times. Are the two sides any closer on the end goals? Is there agreement that Iran should have only what it needs for a peaceful program (inaudible) agreement that the idea of extending breakout time is a proper protocol?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, in terms of goals, I would start by pointing you back to the Joint Plan of Action, which began to outline what the goals were for a comprehensive plan of action and what that would look like. We have been very clear throughout this process of what our goal is, what the P5+1’s goal is, and that hasn’t changed in any way – again, that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon and that their program is entirely for peaceful purposes. Some of the details of what that might look like are in the JPOA if you go back and read it, so I don’t think I’d go much further than that. Again, that’s what we’re focused on doing, that’s what we’re at the table talking about how to do.

Yes, Laura Rozen.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) process (inaudible) it seems like (inaudible) to say (inaudible) know what all the issues are (inaudible), let’s just throw (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s not physically possible, I think.

QUESTION: Right. But can you give us (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well –

QUESTION: (Inaudible) possible (inaudible) who were in in the room for the talks (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, let me start and then I will see if any of my colleagues want to jump in, although I’m not sure any of them will want to. But I will give them the chance.

On the first question – look, we’re not going to go through the nitty-gritty of how logistically we’re working through the issues. As you know, many of them are related in some ways. None of them operate in a vacuum, which is why we talk about this package. But the process through which we work through them, both at the experts level and the political director level, we’re just not going to get into that level of detail to preserve the nature of the negotiations.

I would remind people that what was really different about this round from the previous rounds, process-wise, right, is that in the first round we set the agenda and the framework for how the six months was going to go. In the second and third rounds, we put all of the issues on the table, we spent time laying out all of the issues and getting them out on the table. Now we’re talking about ways to actually bridge those gaps. So it shouldn’t be surprising to people that’s a more difficult conversation than putting the issue itself just on the table, right? So I think when you’re getting your head around why maybe this was more difficult now, why it was different, I think that’s probably a part of it.

I don’t know if anyone –

QUESTION: I wanted to ask also –

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: The meetings seemed to start a day later than anticipated (inaudible) seems like something (inaudible) fair to say (inaudible) don’t have much time left. You guys are the only ones who feel a sense of urgency. How did you explain that to (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, a few points on that. I think the reason it started that day - it was - I think was a scheduling issue, quite frankly. I obviously refer to the EU, who sets up the schedule for this, but it’s my understanding that it was just a scheduling issue.

But you’re right that we’re not going to resolve all of the differences in four days in Vienna. That’s unrealistic, and we’re certainly not operating under that assumption. That’s why in between the sessions when we meet, we have continual expert discussions on the phone, over email, some in person – you know experts were in New York last week for talks – and also at the political director level. So it’s not like we just come to Vienna and then go back home and don’t work on it in between rounds.

I also think you’ll see increasing in-person meetings probably at a high level coming over the next few months as well as we move forward in the process.

Yes. Laurence. Hello.

QUESTION: Hi. (Inaudible.)

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can you speak up a little bit?

QUESTION: Yeah, sorry. (Inaudible) said in the past that (inaudible) Iran to make (inaudible). Are you more or less optimistic now that you'll be able to do that? And secondly –

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me do the first, and then you can have a follow-up so I don’t forget.

It’s not about being optimistic or not optimistic; it’s about being realistic. We’ve always said that. The President said it’s 50-50. I don’t think I’m probably going to disagree with him on this or anything else. But we do know that there are tough decisions that have to be made. We all need to be realistic about the issues at hand and how we can be assured we – not just the United States, but the international community - can be assured that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is entirely peaceful.

So that’s part of why this is so hard. But we’re going to keep working at it.

QUESTION: And then secondly (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Than we were before?

QUESTION: Yeah.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t think it’s a useful exercise to try and do that kind of analysis, right? As we’ve also said, the only percentage we care about is 100 percent, when we can agree on everything. And nothing’s agreed to until everything’s agreed to, as we’ve said many, many times.

So I think we need to keep making progress. We’ve said that there needs to be more progress and it needs to be more quickly, I think, is the notion I was trying to get across in the opening remarks, because time is not unlimited. But we believe we can still get it done if those decisions and choices are made, and if we can all keep working together on it.

Lou, yes.

QUESTION: The differences between the P5+1 meeting with Iran on things like centrifuges, (inaudible) issues like missiles, and we know that there are nuances within the P5+1 that – without talking about specific issues in general, is there a sense on your end that the Iranians have not shown or demonstrated a willingness to approach it in a holistic way, the way you guys are emphasizing must be made?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think a few things. The first is that – you mentioned P5+1 unity. We have remained unified as these talks have progressed. We’ve said that for months now and that hasn’t changed. Second, it’s just a fact that the issues are linked, right. None of them operates in a vacuum. It’s not like you can go down a checklist and say, “Okay, once we’ve dealt with this, we can deal with this,” because in so many ways, they’re linked. So it’s just a fact that they’re related.

And we, as I said, are talking about these things in an interdependent way, in an interlinked way. And as we made very clear in the JPOA, which everyone signed up to, all of our concerns have to be met in order to get to a comprehensive agreement, and that’s certainly what we’re working towards.

Yes, hello. The non-Indira Bloomberg reporter.

QUESTION: Hi, (inaudible). I’m Jonathan Tirone with Bloomberg.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for using your microphone.

QUESTION: I’m well-trained (inaudible).

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The joint commission outlined in the JPOA, it set up to facilitate a condition (inaudible) issues of concern. There’s an epistemological (inaudible) IAEA.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, let me correct one thing you’ve said. The joint commission as set up in the JPOA was intended to address issues if they arose during implementation. I don’t think it was specifically intended to address past and present issues.

QUESTION: Well, it says the joint commission will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Uh-huh. We’ll work with them, but it’s my understanding – and correct me if I’m wrong, experts – that it was set up as part of the JPOA to address concerns if they arose during implementation.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Let me just continue with my question –

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: -- and if it’s no comment, that’s fine, but there’s a bottleneck above past issues of concern that the IAEA is, of course, independent, and yet the IAEA is very conscious of requesting member input into the resolution issues. The U.S., as the most influential, most powerful member of the agency, is in a position to weigh in on the secretariat to gauge the authenticity of Iran’s explanations.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So is there a plan? Was the joint commission discussed? What’s the (inaudible) of the joint commission’s (inaudible) to resolve these issues?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I will let – if other folks have anything to say on the joint commission up here. On the general question of past and present concerns in the IAEA, I mean, we said, every time we’re asked about this, that they have the lead role to play on these issues, and that they – that Iran needs to work with them. Obviously, we work very closely with the IAEA, but we really need to see progress through that mechanism on some of these issues, which is really the best place to address them even as part of these discussions.

I don’t know if people have anything else on the joint commission they want to say. I can see if there’s more on that for you.

QUESTION: Yeah, that’s fine, but just as a follow-up, the IAEA then refers back to its membership. So you’re facing a circular argument potentially that without some sort of outside intervention by the joint commission or membership the IAEA (inaudible).

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you’re focusing – I will check with some of the experts on this. I think you’re focused on the joint commission in a little way that’s not entirely correct in terms of the role it should be playing on this. And I don’t think it’s circular just because we’re a member of the IAEA. The IAEA is a body that is tasked with dealing with these issues and has been working with Iran on this for some time, even though we’re a member of it. So they have a mandate separate and apart from what we’re doing here, but obviously related to it. So if there’s more on the joint commission to share, I’m happy to get back to you on that.

Who else? Yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Borrow Paul’s mike.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) from Al Arabiya. (Inaudible) after this session, do you have the conviction that you are progressing, or as we say in French, you are walking in the same place? (In French.) And do you – after this session, you have the understanding that Iran is able to take the tough decision you are talking about (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as I said we’re just at the beginning of the drafting and negotiating process, right. So this has been a new step in how this process has worked from the last few months. So look, that in and of itself was moving the process forward. Now, it’s been difficult, but we knew it would be difficult.

So what we’re focused on is the work our experts and our political directors will continue doing over the coming days and weeks coming back here in June and seeing if we can keep narrowing these gaps because they are significant. And we all should be very clear about how significant they are. But that doesn’t mean we’re not working very hard to try to bridge them.

And as we’ve also said, there’s not one formula here, right. There’s a number of ways you can put the pieces of the puzzle together and get to the goal, which is not obtaining a nuclear weapon and the program being for entirely peaceful purposes. So it’s the combination that you have to find the right one, and that’s what we’re working on right now.

Who else? Yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, sorry, sorry. Oh, whether they’re able to? Well, certainly we need to see some tough decisions being made. So more than we’ve seen thus far. And we’ll keep working on it.

Yes.

QUESTION: Did you say – I’m sorry (inaudible) – did you say that the date has been set for the next round of talks (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, the – so the EU announces these. I will defer to my colleagues in the European Union to announce the talks, but we will be back in June all here doing this again, moving the process forward.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) there is a date (inaudible).

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Uh-huh. That’s my understanding. Double check with them, but that’s my understanding, yes.

QUESTION: And then secondly, Araghchi, the Iranian negotiator, said that they – it hasn’t actually started the drafting process.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Uh-huh. Well, I’m not going to get into sort of details about what’s on paper and what’s not. As I said, we’ve started the negotiating drafting process, which is a process that will take some time. But I’m not going to get into details about what that looks like inside the room.

Who else? Any – I answered all of your questions. Yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) from the (inaudible) news agency. I have a question – some nuclear – the U.S. delegation also emphasized that more issues should be addressed in the talks. And several days ago, I have read an article in German newspaper – it said that (inaudible) for the military – possible military (inaudible) perhaps there is a way (inaudible) military program but to the – handled by (inaudible) and between IAEA and, for example, Iran, it could be (inaudible) talks in – can you confirm it?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what we’ve said is that all issues do need to be addressed. If you go back and read the Joint Plan of Action it’s very clear about things like past and present concerns, about UN Security Council resolutions being addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement. That has in no way changed.

(Inaudible.) Yes.

QUESTION: Peter Kenyon, NPR. Mr. Araghchi was talking to the Iranian (inaudible) and he said if we cannot come up with an agreement by July 20th, that’s okay. We know it’s not a catastrophe. We still have six months.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I mean, does that suggest that the sense of urgency might not be there?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the sense of urgency is certainly here among us. I think it’s there in the room as well. And as I said, we’re tracking towards July 20th. That is the date we’re focused on right now.

QUESTION: So was there anything in the presentation, if there was a presentation by the Iranians, today that suggested that a slower timetable (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, I’ll let them speak for their internal thinking on this, but we absolutely have a sense of urgency. As I said, time is not unlimited and we are still working towards that date. Yes.

Yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) from AP. Is there – you said in your statement that it would be at June, executive level again. Same people or (inaudible) executive level of John Kerry?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, no, political director. So that’s the same people.

QUESTION: Secretary?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have no announcements about the Secretary of State’s travel, no.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

Anyone else? Anything else? Am I missing anyone back there?

Laura? Go ahead.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s okay. Or we can all just go have dinner.

QUESTION: Following up on what John had asked, (inaudible) it occurred to me that it was (inaudible). (Inaudible.)

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well –

QUESTION: And that’s the reason why – I’m sure that’s the reason (inaudible).

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I’ll say a few things. I have no – I’m not even going to pretend to get into the head of the Iranian negotiators. I don’t think you want me to. But I will say a few things. Look, we have been clear that past and present concerns have to be addressed. I am not going to outline what that will look like, entertain hypotheticals about what that might look like in terms of what the public discourse is at that time.

But I’ll say a few things about Congress, quite frankly, and you’ve heard others say this as well: We believe if we can get a comprehensive agreement that ensures Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon, that its program is entirely peaceful, that addresses the issues we laid out very clearly in the JPOA, that we will be able – that Congress will be supportive of it. I’m not saying there won’t be tough conversations. You all know the political system as well as I do.

But we know that this is the best chance we’ve ever had to resolve this diplomatically. We have an obligation to test this moment, and if we can get to a comprehensive agreement that we are satisfied with, we will not make a bad deal. We have been clear about that. We will not rush into one; we will take the time to get a good one, and that if we do, we will be able to work with the United States Congress on that at that time.

QUESTION: I’m understanding (inaudible) circular (inaudible) –

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: “Circular” is the word of the day. (Laughter.) Yes, Laura – you’re just saying yes – no, finish your question.

QUESTION: If something’s not done and it’s (inaudible) the IAEA, it’s risky for them. If (inaudible) – if this is not a (inaudible) and others, then it seems like you all have the (inaudible) interests for there to do. So if someone (inaudible).

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we’re certainly thinking how all of this will play out going forward. I know you don’t like the answer, but we are thinking about all of the issues you raise and all of the issues you all ask about – certainly how they will play out going forward, absolutely. We’re just not going to get into the specifics of our thinking on it.

Yes, Laurence.

QUESTION: (Inaudible), I have a follow-up, and (inaudible) not possible, that’s (inaudible).

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Give it a try.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) any willingness to compromise on the issue that (inaudible)? And secondly, with the long bilateral this morning was this basically people are saying that you need to move more quickly, you need to make more progress?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You’re right, I’m not going to answer the first question, but it was a good shot.

Look, it was a long meeting. We had a three-hour bilateral with the Iranian delegation this morning here at the Coburg. And it won’t surprise you I’m not going to outline the details of what we talked about in that meeting. It was a straightforward conversation. Those conversations will continue. But we say the same things privately that we say publicly, that we’re saying right now – that this process needs to move. It needs to move faster. We need to see progress. Those are messages we’re certainly very clear about in all forms.

Anything else? Yes, Paul.

QUESTION: Just want to make sure that I know (inaudible) the meetings held (inaudible). There was one U.S. bilateral with the Iranians, there were three meetings between (inaudible), is that right?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would – I can check with their folks. I’d refer you to their folks to check on that number, if people have confirmation. I don’t want to speak for them. I can double-check for you, though.

QUESTION: So I noticed that you don’t use a lot of the words that [other senior US administration officials] usually use, like “productive,” “useful,” all those kinds of things.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think I was clear in the opening remarks that this is a difficult moment. I think we use the words we find most appropriate. But again, they’re reasons we all knew this moment would come. Why we – we saw them when we did the JPOA. This was not unexpected. There is a path forward here for the negotiations, period. But I appreciate the wordsmithing, the work, the attention to the words.

Yes, Lou.

QUESTION: Can we go back to the issue of missiles? Do you know the Iranians even said that they don’t want this to be part of the discussions. It’s been an ongoing decision, but the Russians also came out and said that, again, that they don’t believe it should be part – it should be on the agenda, at least (inaudible) interview (inaudible) Russia Today, and their (inaudible) training with Iran is a well-known fact. How difficult is that going to be for you going forward? I mean, getting Russia and U.S. to agree on –

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as I’ve said, the P5+1 is united on issues that we’re talking about. And look, all issues are on the table. I don’t have much more to say than it – on that. This is all complicated. A lot of these are really tough issues. If they were easy, it would have been done a long time ago.

QUESTION: Were you able to bring Russia along with the U.S. (inaudible) that? I mean, is that categorical?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I don’t – I’m not going to give more details about what our internal discussions look like. I’m just not.

I’m going to do, I think, one or two more questions.

Hannah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. You mentioned in your opening remarks (inaudible), that this would not (inaudible).

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Can you elaborate more on this?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This moment of difficulty, but reminding people I also used the word “useful” in my opening remarks, so let’s focus on all the words I used and not just some of them. It was a useful set of discussions.

QUESTION: But what wasn’t (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think four days ago, you heard my colleague sit in a room like this and say this will be difficult, right. We knew when we started – when we moved past the phase of just talking about issues and putting them all on the table to the negotiating phase, it would be hard. That’s not a surprise to anyone. If it weren’t, again, this would have been done a long time ago. So I think that’s what you hear us referring to. But again, I do want to underscore that it was useful, that there is a path forward here, and this is not unexpected in a negotiation. There will be ups and downs. That’s not at all unusual.

QUESTION: This basically means like (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Difficulties, yeah.

Last question from Laura Rozen – for now.

QUESTION: Last time, you guys (inaudible). I understand this is much, much (inaudible), but even though (inaudible) after that (inaudible) has the U.S. (inaudible) who, as I understand, hasn’t happened outside (inaudible) this year. And I’m wondering if you (inaudible).

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think this is just a different negotiation. It’s a much harder one. It’s a comprehensive agreement that we’re trying to get. The first step was a tough one to get, as you know. But this – we’ve always said this would be harder. We did not expect to get it done in the same amount of time that it took to do the Joint Plan of Action. So I don’t think we’re surprised by it. We’re focused on the meetings we’re having here with all of the work our experts are doing to really dig into the issues, and that’s what we’ll keep working on.

QUESTION: And (inaudible) confirm there (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I don’t have any additional details for you on meetings, Laura.

QUESTION: Just a very quick question. The Iranians report in their briefing there’s two meetings scheduled (inaudible). You confirmed only one? Is there two?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that there may be a couple. Again, I’ll let the EU announce that. I think they’re – and as I said to Laura’s question earlier, I do expect that these meetings will get more frequent as we go forward. We’re going to be spending a lot of time in Vienna, everyone.

Well, thank you for coming. Again, this is one background, Senior U.S. Administration Official. You know how to get in touch with me if you have any follow-up questions. We will keep you posted on future planning, and thanks for coming tonight. And thank you for the change in location. I appreciate everyone’s flexibility.

ENDS

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