Prospects of a “Terrorist Super-Highway” and Israel’s Recent Military Obsession with Iran

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This report is disturbing.
I met former General Zvi Shtauber last year at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and sensed that he was more of a quick hit hawk than a complex strategist. During the same trip, however, I met numerous Iran-watchers inside the Mossad and inside Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who felt that the last thing that America and Israel should do was to over-hype Ahmadinejad or the Iranian regional threat. Doing so, in their view, would lead to an environment that incrementally legitimated the most reactionary parts of the Iranian political environment rather than undermined them.
Serious Israeli strategists know that the best way to hinder Iran is to (1) work to reduce the price of oil to undermine the economic basis of Iran’s growing pretensions; (2) to work covertly to “stir up trouble” inside Iran among its own interest groups — much like Iran is doing to the U.S. inside Iraq; and (3) to find ways to tacitly work with and recognize other power centers inside Iran rather than the relatively weak but hyperbolic President Ahmadinejad.
What Shtauber and other recent Israeli advocates of a strike against Iran are not discussing is that such a military strike is NOT against concrete and mortar facilities and warehouses storing centrifuges.
The strike would attempt to kill 5,000 to 6,000 of Iran’s top tier nuclear engineer talent. To kill those approximately 6,000 people, many more will be injured and killed — and that human nightmare will agitate huge cross sections of Iranian society far beyond any of the limited groups that have thus far supported Ahmadinejad.
A military strike of this sort would allow a total consolidation of power behind Ahmadinejad and rip power away from all other power centers inside Iraq.
What it would also do is create a massive “terrorist super-highway” stretching from Iran through Iraq, into Syria and permeating Jordan, overrunning Lebanon — up to the edge of Israel.
Israel has smart people with substantial intelligence resources inside Iran. American and Israeli officials need to listen to them and think this through.
Bombing Iran could easily trigger the worst potential outcomes. There are other choices. The Saudis and Gulf states have suggested some ways to bring Iran down a notch.
The binary choice on Iran simply is not good enough — but Bush & Co. don’t seem to be doing anything substantial to generate an option other than acquiescing to Iran or bombing it.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

21 comments on “Prospects of a “Terrorist Super-Highway” and Israel’s Recent Military Obsession with Iran

  1. gookydu1 says:

    I would like to just correct the above letter writer “Zathras” refering to Irans president as a “jew hater” where he said he was’nt,only a hater of the “zionist”.He also said there is also 5000 jews living in Iran,and they said they have no problems living there.Infact,they have a jew in parlament.

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  2. NH Dem says:

    “A military strike of this sort would allow a total consolidation of power behind Ahmadinejad and rip power away from all other power centers inside Iraq (sic).”
    Hmmm…sounds familiar…wait…
    “Ahmadinejad is indeed a dangerous person, more so in my view than the mullahs of the Guardian Council. He will be far more dangerous if Iran should find itself in a situation — e.g. under attack by a hated enemy — in which he can make a reasonable claim that the nation requires a unitary executive….” — Posted by: NH Dem at August 4, 2006 01:31 AM
    http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/001579.php
    Oh — am I blowing my own horn? So sorry.

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  3. MP says:

    There is a report out–Stern was the author, I believe–that Iranian oil reserves are in severe decline and may run out by 2015.

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  4. Den Valdron says:

    John, I think that one lesson from Iraq is that it is extremely difficult to simply conquer the oil fields. The US has been in Iraq for four years and production has dropped every year. The US forces cannot successfully prevent sabotage or smuggling or patrol every mile of pipeline.
    The fact is that the facilities are easier to disrupt than they are to control. An American occupation of Iranian Oil Fields would probably result in the degradation of those oil fields.
    That said, there was an extremely loud ‘conquer the oil fields’ contingent both leading up to Iraq and now leading into Iran. So maybe the idea isn’t getting through.

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  5. John says:

    Den–
    And if Iran has deterrence, an oil starved Houston can’t just grab their strategic resources. The thought of the holder of the world’s greatest combined oil and natural gas reserves being able to defend itself must drive these folks absolutely bonkers. Energy is the dirty little secret that foreign policy and national security elites will never discuss, which is why I raise the issue frequently. Short of occupation, no one knows how to pry Iran’s spigots open. Bombing will not convince them. Nor will negotiations. In fact, Iran actually reduced oil production after the revolution, choosing to export only as much as they needed to cover imports.

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  6. Den Valdron says:

    It’s a point that Steve seems to continually gloss over whenever the subject comes up, P.O.A.. That’s why I go out of my way to emphasize the point.
    I suspect that Steve knows better, but that he accepts it as a kind of shorthand or dog whistle code for ‘Iran is a potential challenge to the U.S. hegemony in the region and must be dealt with…’
    Steve doesn’t stray too far from the reservation.

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  7. Marky says:

    It’s disgusting how the same muddle-headed “moderates” who enabled Bush to make war on Iraq are pushing for war with Iran, based on exactly the same phony rationale—Iran is an imminent threat to launch a nuclear strike on the US or Israel. If you didn’t know that such people were warmongering dissemblers the first time around, you can be damn sure of it this time.

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  8. Pissed Off American says:

    I see Steve convieniently avoided the REASON that is being advanced as the rationale for bombing Iran. I suspect it is because he realizes that both the CIA and the IAEA have found ABSOLUTELY no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
    So, Steve reduces that rationale to “taking Iran down a notch”. Is that what all this rhetoric is about, Steve, we are going to “take Iran down a knotch”? Thats why we are threatening military action, and Israel has reportedly threatened to use low yield nukes?
    Bullshit. Iran has just as much right to nuclear power plants as we do. (Although I wish there was a WORLDWIDE ban on them) And, considering Israel’s actions in Lebanon, and our actions in Iraq, who can blame the Iranians if they ARE seeking defensive nukes. They are as aware of MAD as we used to be, and their procurement of nuclear weapons may just be the one thing that STOPS nuclear weapons from being used in the Middle East. After all, it is this asshole Bush, and now reportedly Ohlmert, that are the world leaders that are actually MAKING nuclear threats. And those two DO have the football.

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  9. Den Valdron says:

    Actually, my favourite word is ‘ascertain.’
    There are two ways that you could reasonably hope to kill the majority of nuclear scientists and technicians in Iran, so as to cripple their civilian and (imaginary) military nuclear program.
    The first is to attempt to take out command and control and communications systems as you go, so as to ensure that warning does not reach their distributed nuclear sites swiftly enough to allow evacuation or lockdown.
    This would require a far more massive effort. There may only be a dozen or two dozen potential nuclear sites. However, there are literally hundreds of communications and command points. You’d literally have to take down the entire national grid and back ups. This would require a comprehensive and simultaneous raiding of hundreds of points, while simultaneously going for the big prizes.
    I say simultaneous because if you aren’t hitting everything all at once, then someone gets a warning out. And once the communications and command grids go down, that itself is a warning. So the longer its down, the more likely that evacuation and lockdown occur spontaneously.
    This calls for a massive use of firepower, and a massive air fleet, most likely well beyond even Israel’s capacities. Possibly beyond Americas.
    It would also produce massive civilian casualties on a national scale.
    The other option would be to extend the area of lethality from the sites themselves to likely evacuation or dispersement areas… which means heavy bombing of civilian populated areas. And the use of high energy (tactical nuclear0 weapons to destroy hardened sites.
    Again, civilian casualties on a massive scale.
    No matter how you slice it, killing that 5,000 involves a death toll of tens of thousands.

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  10. Jackmormon says:

    But what is *not* helpful is a policy of mindlessly “stirring up trouble among various power centers”.
    This is absolutely correct. Haven’t we learned in Iraq that stirring up sectarianism and separatism has unpredictable results?

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  11. MP says:

    Dan Kervick writes: “That is true enough. But could I also point out that a strike aimed at killing 5,000 to 6,000 Iranian nuclear scientists would be a simple case of *mass murder*, since most all of these scientists are likely engaged in civilian projects which they and Iran have every right to pursue under international law? The fact that this attack might come from the sky, by the vehicle of US warplanes would not disguise its nature: a murderous and deliberate “hit” on unarmed civilians.”
    Yes, yes, yes. This is truly demonic. I’m afraid I must avail myself of Den’s favorite term–“monsters”–to describe the minds that are thinking this up, if this is indeed the plan.
    But also, at a practical level: how would this even work? If nuclear facilities are as spread out as people say they are–if Iran’s radar is able to give these scientists time to scramble to cover or just disperse–how COULD a raid or two be certain to kill this many nuclear scientists? It just doesn’t seem workable.
    I’m not sure I entirely agree with this part of your post: “So this is what Iranian “pretensions” consist in: the pretense of prosperity and success. And *that* is what Israel and the Saudis are so afraid of. Why? Because they are worried about pecisely the same thing: the future of US-Iranian relations. *Both* states regard their security as conditioned by their “special relationship” with the United States. *Both* know that if that special relationship ends, or is mitigated, or if some other state emerges with which the United States might be tempted to establish an equally “special” relationship, their days of riding high and free under US indulgence and protection might be over.”
    It seems to me that there are all kinds of special relationships with the US that don’t seem to do any damage to other special relationships. The Saudis have one with the US; it doesn’t mitigate the Israeli special relationship. The Iranians used to have a special relationship with the US, and it didn’t seem to bother the Saudis or the Israelis. And on and on.
    I think the problems start when, say, the Saudis see the Iranians getting closer to the US AND remaining or getting more hostile to them. And the same for Israel.
    As to Israel, I think they ARE capable of living in peace with neighboring Muslim countries without dividing and conquering (e.g., Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, even in a certain way with Lebanon) when they don’t perceive those countries as threatening Israel. Pundits spend a lot of time discussing strategies for “manipulating” various Muslim countries and peoples to act in ways that are acceptable to the West and/or Israel. Muslim countries might want to try manipulating Israel and its people into acting in ways more agreeable to the Muslim world.
    Manipulate probably isn’t the right word, but it’s close.
    I agree, superb post with lots to think about.

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  12. MP says:

    To John: Amen. There was a report–I think it was headed by someone named Stern–that claimed that Iranian oil reserves are sinking fast…and Iran could be dry as early as 2015.
    This would lend credence to the idea that Iran is building a nuclear capability for peaceful purposes–in large part, if not entirely.

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  13. pauline says:

    from Pat Buchanan this morning —
    “. . .on Dec. 30, retired Gen. Oded Tira, who headed up all Israeli artillery units, burst into print with this admonition:
    “As an American air strike in Iran is essential for our existence, we must help (Bush) pave the way by lobbying the Democratic Party (which is conducting itself foolishly) and U.S. newspaper editors. We need to do this in order to turn the Iranian issue to a bipartisan one and unrelated to the Iraq failure.”
    “Bush lacks the political power to attack Iran,” writes Tira. Thus, Israel and its U.S. lobbying arm “must turn to Hillary Clinton and other potential presidential candidates in the Democratic Party so that they publicly support immediate action by Bush against Iran.”
    “The Americans must act,” Tira concludes. “If they don’t, we’ll do it ourselves … (and) we must immediately start preparing for an Iranian response to an attack.”
    According to UPI editor-at-large Arnaud De Borchgrave, Tira’s line tracks the New Year’s Day message of Likud superhawk “Bibi” Netanyahu, the former prime minister.
    Said Netanyahu, Israel “must immediately launch an intense, international public relations front first and foremost on the U.S. The goal being to encourage President Bush to live up to specific pledges he would not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons. We must make clear to the (U.S.) government, the Congress and the American public that a nuclear Iran is a threat to the U.S. and the entire world, not only Israel.”
    Israel’s war, says Bibi, must be sold as America’s war.”
    http://www.antiwar.com/pat/?articleid=10290

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  14. John says:

    Once Israel is green lighted to use nukes against other countries, then other countries will almost certainly see use of nuclear weapons as legitimate, particularly against nations that use them pre-emptively. Any Israeli first use of nuclear weapons would almost certainly blow back as an existential threat to them, later if not sooner. Such a small country cannot withstand a nuclear attack, and the world cannot withstand the Israeli retaliation. This is not a genie that can be put back into the bottle.
    We urgently need some adult supervision in Washington and Tel Aviv. Policymakers are all too quick to jump to the conclusion that Tehran wants a first strike capability, when in fact they have overwhelming reasons to simply build a deterrent capability, if they are building nuclear weapons at all.

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  15. ... says:

    Dan Kervick your post offers a good reason why israel is determined to bring on a war with iran, either indirectly through the usa, or directly. you also comment on israels nuclear weapons, something israel has worked hard to deny, in spite of olmarts recent news media mishap. i think this is an important point the world is not wanting to acknowledge openly.. is it okay for israel to have nuclear weapons, but not certain other countries? it seems some people think the double standard is okay, indeed they are willing to use violence to ensure that it remains this way…

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  16. Den Valdron says:

    Dan, a thoughtful and interesting post with much to say.
    Most or all of the 6000 scientists and technicians targeted for ‘assassination by bomber’ are civilians. The immorality of a major military strike deliberately aimed at targetting thousands of civilians is self evident.
    I would also emphasize that bombing, no matter how surgical, is highly imprecise. For all the talk of precision laser guided smart weapons used in the Iraq Wars, these weapons were only as smart as those who targeted them. You can’t simply drop a bomb big enough to destroy one building and expect its neighbors to be unscathed.
    Target 6000, the real potential civilian casualties may be 15,000 or 50,000. The immorality is self evident.
    The immorality is particularly evident when there is no persuasive evidence that Iraq is pursuing a nuclear weapon. And particularly when the best assessments put any realistic threat at ten to twenty years away.
    The proposal is to commit an act of pre-meditated wanton mass murder upon tens of thousands of innocent civilians in a calculated act of hatred predicated on paranoia without evidence.

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  17. Dan Kervick says:

    Steve, you say:
    “A military strike of this sort would allow a total consolidation of power behind Ahmadinejad and rip power away from all other power centers inside Iraq.”
    That is true enough. But could I also point out that a strike aimed at killing 5,000 to 6,000 Iranian nuclear scientists would be a simple case of *mass murder*, since most all of these scientists are likely engaged in civilian projects which they and Iran have every right to pursue under international law? The fact that this attack might come from the sky, by the vehicle of US warplanes would not disguise its nature: a murderous and deliberate “hit” on unarmed civilians.
    This is the ugly slippery slope down which we easily slide once we adopt a strategy of preventive warfare, and start to think in those terms. To kill people who are not attacking you, or engaged in preparing an attack you, on the theory that someday they *might* attack you or prepare to attack you, is regarded as murder by all civilized people. There is simply no difference between what General Shtauber is proposing to do and one of us deciding to kill the neighbor kid who wins the science fair on the theory that he might grow up to be an angry unabomber who puts a pipe bomb in our mailboxes. It is disgusting that such brutes even manage to get a hearing from visiting Americans.
    As for the more “serious strategists”, the only component of their three-part strategy that makes any sense from the standpoint of American interests is the third one. We should indeed find ways to minimize the influence of Ahmadinejad on Iranian policy, and enhance the influence of more level-headed statesmen, politicians and ordinary Iranians. One way to do that is to work with allies to offer *carrots* to other parts of the Iranian government and society in response to constructive behavior and engagement, and show that those people who take a less ideological and rhetorically confrontational approach are able to deliver benefits to the Iranian people. Ahmadinejad’s power, such as it is, is apparently already slipping inside Iran among both the upper echelons of the government *and* the public, as recent electoral results show. Let’s hope that slide continues, and let’s think of rational approaches toward accomplishing that end.
    But what is *not* helpful is a policy of mindlessly “stirring up trouble among various power centers”. It is in our long-term interest to promote the stability of Iran as a coherent state, capable of engaging in statecraft, diplomacy and the intelligent pursuit of its interests over the long term. A policy of simply disrupting and stirring up trouble in Iran internally is the same kind of neocon “creative destruction” crap that has gotten us into several of our current messes.
    *Nor* should we be working to weaken Iran economically. Economies in decline tend to produce a pessimistic, angry and xenophobic populace – a bitter and introverted nationalistic rabble bent on taking revenge on their perceived enemies, foreign and domestic. Economies on the rise produce instead an optimistic, outward looking, secure citizenry, confident in their ability to engage with other peoples without fear, desirous of consuming the products and cultural offerings these other peoples have to offer, and resistant to populist paranoids and fear-mongers. (Consider as an object lesson the effect of wage stagnation and job insecurity on much or “red state” America, and the corresponding drift of the US into Bush era unilateralism and authoritarianism.)
    These suggestions that we foment disorder and foster economic decline in Iran are nothing new, but represent classic Israeli “divide and weaken” strategy toward the Arab and Muslim world. To put it bluntly, *any* stable, prosperous and secure state in the Arab and Muslim world is perceived by Israel as a threat, so they will *always* work to divide those states internally, and to reduce them to a condition of weakness.
    I’m a bit puzzled by all the scare-mongering about “Iranian pretensions” that we hear so much about from our Israeli and Saudi friends. Iran is literally surrounded by US forces and allies. The US has a presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other Gulf states. It has a good friend in Turkey. And right now it is working to extend that presence into Turkmenistan. Iran’s entire border – and a large border it is – is currently locked up. If ever there was a case of containment in action, this is it. And Israel currently has Iran outgunned in nuclear terms on the order of several hundred to *zero*. The Incredible Expanding Iran bogeyman is complete rot – a fabrication designed to encourage the US public to support moving in for the kill. So far as Iranian activity outside its borders goes, all I see is Iran practicing ordinary statecraft, of the kind any state would practice in response to an unending series of threats. Give the utter chaos spreading on Iran’s western border, I would have to say that the Islamic Republic’s behavior toward Iraq has been quite restrained. If the Israelis or Americans faced that kind of mess on their border, the IDF or US Marines would probably have launched far more invasive military operations long ago. And Iran has sought to develop a closer relationship with Syria, and maintain its relationship with Hizbollah in response to a *clear military threat* from a heavily and nuclearly armed Israel.
    So this is what Iranian “pretensions” consist in: the pretense of prosperity and success. And *that* is what Israel and the Saudis are so afraid of. Why? Because they are worried about pecisely the same thing: the future of US-Iranian relations. *Both* states regard their security as conditioned by their “special relationship” with the United States. *Both* know that if that special relationship ends, or is mitigated, or if some other state emerges with which the United States might be tempted to establish an equally “special” relationship, their days of riding high and free under US indulgence and protection might be over.
    What they fear is the hard, clear unavoidable *logic* of evolving global events and power relations. Consider: Iran is large, more modern and more democratic than Saudi Arabia. And miracle of miracles, its people actually have a much more favorable view of the US than Saudis do, despite relentless pressure from our fanatical administration to produce precisely the opposite effect on the Persian masses. Iranians haven’t proven to be especially interested in running off to join the jihad and fly planes into our buildings. And the diverse, Iranian style of Shia Islam, the greater freedoms of its people (compared to Saudi Arabia) and the constitutional framework of Iran’s government – for all the old revolutionary Khomeini’s railing against the US – actually makes for a more modern, flexible, dynamic and pragmatic society than the Saudi combination of retrogade and puritanical Wahhabist and Salafist cultism favored by so in that country, and the dynastic patriarchy that runs Saudi Arabia on a model which doesn’t even rise to the level of feudalism. Iran is also fantastically well-positioned from a strategic point of view.
    So it makes abundant sense that the US should move closer to Iran, and away from Saudi Arabia over time. That’s what the Saudis see and fear in the Kingdom. And Israeli and Saudi politicians are of like mind in this fear. Israel also sees nothing to gain from a drift toward an eventual US partnership with a secure and powerful partner astride the great gateway from western Asia to central and southern Asia.

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  18. Marky says:

    Iran is an economic threat to the US more than a terrorist one. Because they are more closely allied with China and Russia, and because is is spearheading the move towards trading for oil in euros, Iran does have the ability to seriously impinge on US economic interests. Which is why I think a policy of rapprochement with Iran makes a great deal of sense. I don’t see the fundamental reason that Iran must be our rival and not our ally.
    Unfortunately, just as happened with Cuba, cults of personality on both sides stand in the way of an alignment of interests which the people of both countries would favor.
    Iran is a much more natural ally, more stable, and more reliable, potentially, than Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the Saudis have more oil.

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  19. winnipger says:

    marky,
    let’s just say that there are many current and potential ME terrorist threats to the u.s. i agree that saudi arabia and it’s increasingly radicalized, uneducated, unemployed and young populace is a big, potential threat, but the biggest right now? i’m not so sure about that.
    we’ve broken open a hornet’s nest in iraq and as a result, iran and their al quds force is empowered, emboldened and as radical as any state sponsored element in the ME. along with their ties to hezbollah, the iranians have global reach and a proven ability and willingness to kill innocents if they believe it will advance their interests.
    that being said, i agree with steve’s analysis, as well as that of his israeli confidants; it makes little sense to attack iran in order to prevent a perceived nuclear threat.
    nearly 68,000,000 iranians. 70% under the age of 30… meaning most iranians weren’t alive at the time of the revolution. 80% of the population is literate and many are highly educated.
    the mullahs hold increasingly less sway over this generation. they may still have a stranglehold on seats of power, but they don’t speak to or for the gen. x’ers. these kids want ipods and mtv, not sharia.
    imo, an attack against iran would be at least as counter-productive as our misadventures in iraq. and more than likely, an attack against iran would be catastrophic for u.s. interests.
    maybe the only good news to come out of iraq is that thanks to rummy, cheney, bush, et all, i don’t think that we have the resources nor the stomach for an iranian campaign.

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  20. Zathras says:

    I’ve never understood the urgency of settling the Iraq nuclear question now, whether through military action or some kind of emergency diplomatic initiative.
    If Iran is just on the verge of acquiring a nuclear arsenal that is one thing. But if it is years away — as appears to be the case — the time available to us is an asset we shouldn’t squander lightly. Iran is a country of over 70 million people, with many pressing concerns beyond its president’s hatred of Jews and desire to take the country nuclear. If he is spending as much of his time on these causes as it appears he is, he probably is not being very effective otherwise. This should already be producing political repercussions within Iran that we should be able to exploit. It’s been done before.

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  21. Marky says:

    Is the consensus among “serious” thinkers that the price of oil needs to be reduced in order to combat the terrorist threat from Iran?
    I thought that idea was thoroughly annihilated when broached here before—and needless to say its completely unrealistic.
    Also, it’s cold to say it, but Israel’s terrorist problem is not our own. The so-called terrorist superhighway might be a threat to Israel, but to the US? Doesn’t have to be.
    Saudi Arabia remains the #1 terrorist threat to the US. Just because they are not currently a major threat to Israel and Iran is, do we have to pretend otherwise?

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