Sanctions and smuggling Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran's border Economies (Tom Westcott, Afshin Ismaeli)

Iran shares a 1.458-km-long border with Iraq, of which some 500 km are in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Smuggling of goods across this border has been happening for decades. Over time, this illicit trade has become consolidated, and operated by well organized criminal networks.

Those network of businessmen on either side, deploy smugglers or delivery drivers who transfer goods to collection points in the mountainous border regions and Kurdish couriers who carry the goods, by foot or on horseback, on the last part of the route across the border into Iran.

Two Iranian Kurdish couriers carrying goods from Iraqi Kurdistan trudge through snow towards the Iranian border
I work with my father and three brothers. It’s like a family business. We just do the horses, and we just do alcohol. There’s nothing else we can do to make money because there’s a lot of discrimination against Kurds in Iran. (Yassen, 22)
Goods amassed at a collection point high in the Tata Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, waiting to be collected by Iranian couriers

In the Tata mountains, controlled by the PUK, at one collection point where goods are amassed for couriers to collect, three PUK border guards were present.

Although standing at a collection point used by hundreds of couriers, they made no effort to intervene with smuggling operations.

Mostly, they let them do their job and it’s well known that border guards both sides take bribes, especially the Iranian ones, many of whom arrive as poor men and leave as rich men. (Ahmed)
Iranian Kurdish couriers, sometimes with horses but more often on foot traverse challenging mountain terrain in all weathers to transport goods from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran
Of course it’s busier now because in Iran they are short of everything, so the border guards are afraid because, after the sanctions were put back on Iran, they are overseeing the illegal transportation of a lot of goods. (Kareem)
Smuggling from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran has financial benefits for the communities on either side of the border
There are other jobs in this area but the wages are very bad. I was unemployed and most people in my village were smuggling so I started too. It was easy to get into it because many people in all the Iraqi Kurdish border villages are smugglers, I don’t like this work. It’s not a nice job but I just can’t make the same money doing any other, legal work. (Mahmoud, 32)
An Iranian Kurdish horse courier prepares alcohol loads, which will be carried by horseback into Iran
I have eight horses, all carrying booze, whose haggard, weatherbeaten face makes him look a decade older. I hate this job, I really hate it, but I have no choice. This is no life. We all have families at home. My wife calls me all the time crying, and my little daughter calls me and says ‘Daddy, when are you coming home to buy me an ice-cream?' (Mohamed, 33)
Some horse couriers communicate with walkie talkies, advising each other of safer routes and Iranian border guard action
The weirdest thing I carried was Tramadol tablets and battery acid for making drugs like crystal meth. There are a lot of drug laboratories on the Iranian side, close to the border. (Mahmoud)
Arms smuggling is not like the alcohol smuggling. That goes on all the time but weapons smuggling is a case of supply and demand. The smuggled guns go all over Iran - south, north, literally everywhere. (Soran)
Iranian Kurdish couriers carry cheap petrol from Iran into Iraqi Kurdistan to sell, then load up with goods and return to Iran
Iranian diesel is much better quality than Iraqi diesel. (Mahmoud)
Iranian Kurdish couriers shoulder loads of pre-packaged goods in a warehouse in Iraqi Kurdistan, before immediately leaving and walking towards the border
This is an illegal job and we’re afraid the Iraqi government will find out about it and we’ll lose our jobs. (Mohamed)
Iranian Kurdish couriers load goods - mostly alcohol - onto horseback in the Halgurd Mountain, preparing to cross back into Iran
I have no problems with this job. I like it. But I never did anything else so this is the only job I know. It’s my life. (Fehrat, 22)
Iranian Kurdish couriers who had been targeted by Iranian border guards in 2017 had to attempt a return journey carrying empty bags
We were going down through the valley when they shot at us with machine guns from both sides. We had to leave our horses and run. They poured all the alcohol and diesel over 13 of the horses and set fire to them. We watched from where we were hiding in the mountain and we cried for our horses. (Taher, 27)
Iranian Kurdish couriers carrying goods from Iraqi Kurdistan trudge through snow towards the Iranian border. Every year, couriers die on the mountainside in the harsh winter months
There are land-mines all over these mountains and the biggest problem is the floodwater from the melting snows which wash the mines down the mountainside and onto the paths. Some couriers have lost one or both legs doing this job and are now beggars on the streets back in Iran because they can’t do anything else. (Aram)

Hengaw Organisation for Human Rights said at least 21 couriers were victims of mine explosions in 2018, including five who lost their lives.


Tom Westcott - Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime

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