How sheep smuggling has become a lucrative yet dangerous activity on the border between Iran and Iraq

The financial crisis currently affecting Iran has led to a dramatic increase in sheep smuggling across the border into Iraq, a region home to many Kurds. While some sheep owners make huge profits from this illegal activity, it is dangerous for them on the ground. Several locals have been injured in clashes between smugglers and Iranian police, who have arrested dozens of people in the region.

Much smuggling takes place in the predominantly Kurdish regions surrounding the border between Iran and Iraq. Some of the most common things carried across the border are cigarettes, alcohol and electrical appliances.

Smugglers are locally known as “bulletproof”. Every year, dozens of them die, killed by Iranian border guards, landmines or the harsh winters in this mountainous zone. Jowharobserver teams have reported several stories of bullets operating in this region.

Over the past month, several videos documenting sheep smuggling – the latest lucrative but dangerous activity that has emerged in the region – have surfaced on social media. A video published on Telegram on November 8 shows border guards shooting at a group of men who look like shepherds. According to local residents, this was filmed in Dowlahtu, a village in the western province of Azerbaijan in western Iran.

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This video shows border guards trying to arrest smugglers near Dowlahtu. You can hear several shots being fired.

The men who look like shepherds are actually smugglers trying to transport these flocks across the mountains so that they can sell them at a higher price across the border. None of the security forces or the smugglers were injured during this incident.

This video was filmed 900 kilometers from Dowlahtu, where the first video was filmed, in the Hawizeh Swamp in Khuzestan Province in southeastern Iran. It appeared in the Iranian media on November 2.

This video shows smugglers trying to transport sheep from Iran to Iraq by boat to cross the marshes that separate the two countries.

Two other videos were also filmed on November 5, this time in Zarduyeh, a village 400 kilometers from Dowlahtu in Kermanshah province. In the first video, you can hear the Iranian security forces firing their weapons and see pick-up trucks filled with sheep. The second video shows villagers, mostly women and children, throwing stones at the security forces to chase them out of their village.

In this video, filmed in Zarduyeh, you can hear the sound of gunfire and see sheep seized by Iranian security forces.

The smuggling is taking place along the entire border, as shown in the videos shown on social media. Videos have been uploaded from Dowlahtu, northwest, to Zarduyeh, farthest southwest.

As can be seen on this map, mountain traffic has been documented in several cities on the border between Iran and Iraq from the northwest to the south-east ©.

The Kurdish regions in Iran are underdeveloped and unemployment there is high. Many people turn to smuggling just to make ends meet. Unemployment in Iran is about 10 percent, but according to official statistics, it is 14.8 to 16.9 percent in the Kurdish regions of Kermanshah and Khuzestan. But many Iranian economists say the share is probably much higher.

Sometimes local officials also get involved in smuggling. On November 3, local media reported that Chavos Koresani, a member of the Ravian city council, was killed by Iranian border guards while traveling as a “bullet”.

‘Security forces arrested sheep belonging to Zarduyeh villagers and made them angry’

Sirvan (a pseudonym chosen for his safety) lives in the village of Zarduyeh. He witnessed a raid by Iranian security forces on November 5.

That day, security forces came to our village because they were interested in the sheep smuggling that young men here had begun to engage in. They buy sheep in Iran and then transport them across the border to Iraq because the price of meat is much higher there than in Iran.

It is true that the exchange rate between the toman and the dollar makes this an extremely lucrative operation. According to local media, you can sell a sheep for twice as much in Iraq as in Iran. While a kilo of mutton goes for about 45,000 tomans [equivalent to €1.41] in Iran, it goes for 100,000 kilos of kilos in Iraq [Editor’s note: equivalent to €3.15]. On average, a sheep weighs about 50 kg, which means you can earn about 87 euros more per sheep if you sell it in Iraq. In a country like Iran, which is suffering from soaring inflation and an economic crisis, and where the minimum monthly salary is only € 60, there is a big difference.

Our observer Sirvan continues:

On the day of the event, border guards as well as the guard of the Iranian revolution arranged an ambush near the border, right after my village. They grabbed a lot of sheep and put them in their truck. While some of these sheep were clearly smuggled, they also rounded up some of the sheep belonging to the local population.

That’s why the villagers were so angry. As the convoy passed by, they stopped to say that some of the sheep that had been seized belonged to them. The security forces did not want to hear anything about it and the tone quickly warmed up. Thereafter, the villagers, mostly women and children, began throwing stones at the security forces, who then responded by firing several shots. Thankfully no one was injured. At least three men were arrested and another 20 received a court call.

In this video, a group of mostly women and children from the town of Zarduyeh throw stones at the security forces to chase them away from the village.

‘The ball bar is only hired to do the dirty work’

Our observer says that most of the profits from this type of smuggling end up in the pockets of the “big fish”, not in bullets.

In our region, most people who work as smugglers do not make it a choice; they do it to survive. Most of them are young. There is no work here. All border regions in Iran are in the same situation. I know a brilliant young man who has a doctorate in management who works as a bullet. There are a large number of extremely qualified people like him in the region.

In addition, most of the money from the smuggling does not go to bullets. The type of people who stop working as bullies do not have enough money to buy a large herd. They are employed by richer smugglers who buy sheep in Iran and then sell them using the Telegram messaging app to smugglers across the border in Iraq. Kulbar are just small french fries that are rented out to do the dirty work of crossing the border. They receive hundreds of thousands of tomans to complete the 40-kilometer journey [Editor’s note: meaning they would make up to €30 for a trip]. And it is an extremely difficult journey over the mountains that can take two or three nights.

They travel in groups. There is a scout who continues to make sure the road is safe. Then others take the sheep as if they were just an old shepherd tending a flock. Sometimes border guards put out a hiding place and then ambush [Editor’s note: as you can see in the first video filmed in Zarduyeh].

Currently, there are no official statistics on the number of bullets killed when smuggling sheep. But according to a local human rights organization, at least 39 people who worked as bullets lost their lives in 2019 while carrying out smuggling operations at the border between Iran and Iraq.