The financial crisis currently gripping Iran has led to a dramatic increase in sheep smuggling across the border with Iraq, a region that is home to many Kurds. While some sheep owners are making a large profit from this illegal activity, it’s dangerous for those on the ground. Several locals have been injured during clashes between smugglers and the Iranian police, who have arrested dozens of people in the region.
A lot of smuggling takes place in the predominantly Kurdish regions surrounding the border between Iran and Iraq. Some of the most common items carried across the border are cigarettes, alcohol and electrical appliances.
Smugglers are known locally as “kulbar”. Each year, several dozen of them die, killed by Iranian border guards, landmines or the harsh winters in this mountainous zone. The FRANCE 24 Observers team has reported several stories on the kulbar operating in this region.
In the past month, several videos documenting sheep smuggling – the latest lucrative but dangerous activity to emerge in the region – have appeared on social media. A video posted on Telegram on November 8 shows border guards firing at a group of men who look like shepherds. According to local residents, this footage was filmed in Dowlahtu, a village in the West Azerbaijan province in western Iran.
The men who look like shepherds are, in actual fact, smugglers who are trying to transport these flocks over the mountains so they can sell them for a higher price across the border. None of the security forces or smugglers were injured during this incident.
Another video was filmed 900 kilometers from Dowlahtu, where the first video was filmed, in the Hawizeh Marshes in Khuzestan Province in southeastern Iran. It appeared in Iranian media on November 2.
This video shows smugglers trying to transport sheep from Iran to Iraq using a boat to cross the marshlands separating the two countries.
Two other videos were also filmed on November 5, this time in Zarduyeh, a village located 400 kilometers from Dowlahtu in the 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.
The smuggling is taking place all along the border, as shown in the videos appearing on social media. Videos have been uploaded from Dowlahtu, the northwest, to Zarduyeh, in the far southwest.
The Kurdish regions of Iran are underdeveloped and the unemployment rate there is high. Many people turn to smuggling just to get by. The unemployment rate in Iran is around 10 percent but it is 14.8 to 16.9 percent in the Kurdish regions of Kermanshah and Khuzestan, according to official statistics. However, many Iranian economists say that the rate is probably much higher.
Sometimes even local officials get involved in smuggling. On November 3, local media outlets reported that Chavos Koresani, a member of the village council in Ravian, was killed by Iranian border guards while traveling as a “kulbar”.
‘The security forces seized sheep belonging to the villagers in Zarduyeh, making them angry’
Sirvan (a pseudonym chosen for his security) lives in the village of Zarduyeh. He witnessed a raid by Iranian security forces on November 5.
On that day, security forces came to our village because they were interested in the sheep smuggling that young men here had started getting involved in. They buy sheep in Iran and then transport them over the border into Iraq because the price of meat is much higher there than in Iran.
It’s true that the exchange rate between the toman and the dollar makes this an extremely lucrative operation. According to local media outlets, you can sell a sheep for twice as much in Iraq as in Iran. While a kilo of sheep’s meat goes for about 45,000 tomans [equivalent to €1.41] in Iran, it goes for 100,000 tomans the kilo in Iraq [Editor’s note: equivalent to €3.15]. On average, a sheep weighs about 50kg, which means you can make roughly 87 more euros per sheep if you sell it in Iraq. In a country like Iran, which is suffering from sky-high inflation and an economic crisis, and where the minimum monthly salary is just €60, that is a big difference.
The day of the incident, border guards as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard staged an ambush near the border, which is just after my village. They seized quite a few sheep and put them in their truck. While some of those sheep were clearly being smuggled, they also rounded up some of the sheep belonging to locals.
That’s why the villagers were so angry. When the convoy was passing by, they stopped it to say that some of the sheep that had been seized belonged to them. The security forces didn’t want to hear anything about it and the tone quickly got heated. Then, the villagers, mostly women, and children started to throw stones at the security forces, who then responded by firing several shots. Thankfully, no one was injured. At least three men were arrested and a further 20 received a court summons.
The kulbar are just hired to do the dirty work’
Sirav says that most of the profits from this kind of smuggling ends up in the pockets of the “big fish”, not with the kulbar.
In our region, most of the people who work as smugglers don’t do it as a choice; they do it to survive. Most of them are young. There is no work around here. All of the border regions in Iran are in the same situation. I know a brilliant young man who has a doctorate in management who is working as a kulbar. There are large numbers of extremely qualified people like him in the region.
Moreover, most of the money from the smuggling doesn’t go to the kulbar. The kind of people who end up working as kulbar don’t have enough money to buy a big flock. They are employed by wealthier smugglers who buy the sheep in Iran and then sell them, using the messaging app Telegram, to smugglers on the other side of the border, in Iraq. The kulbar are just small fries hired to do the dirty work of crossing the border. They are paid several hundred thousand tomans to undertake the 40 kilometre journey [Editor’s note: meaning they would make up to €30 for a trip]. And it is an extremely difficult trip over the mountains that can take two or three nights.
They travel in a group. There is a scout who goes ahead to make sure the road is safe. Then others bring the sheep as if they were just any old shepherd tending to a flock. Sometimes, border guards will stake out a hiding place and then ambush them [Editor’s note: as you can see in the first video filmed in Zarduyeh].
For the time being, there are no official statistics on the number of kulbar killed while smuggling sheep. But according to a local human rights organization, at least 79 people working as kulbar lost their lives in 2019 while carrying out smuggling operations on the border between Iran and Iraq.