Having captured smugglers, a nervous border policeman near Tawalla, Iraq, asks us not to film. (Barzan Jaber)

For Kurdish Smugglers, Iran Sanctions are a Boon (with VIDEO REPORT)

Ayar Nazm: ‘There are few work opportunities in my area. Moving goods is the only thing we can do’

Decades of crippling US sanctions against Iran have made the rough terrain along the Iraq-Iran border an active smuggling scene. Now, as still more American restrictions are imposed on the Islamic Republic, trafficking in illegal goods remains a brisk business.

The Media Line’s Middle East bureau chief, Mohammad Al-Kassim, travelled from the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan toward the village of Tawlla, near the border with Iran, and came back with this video report. (A text report follows.)

We travel from the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan toward the village of Tawalla, near the border with Iran.

The border between Iran and Iraq stretches for about 900 miles, mostly through rugged, sparsely populated territory. A 4X4 is one of the few ways to reach the mountainous region.

We take the smugglers’ route.

Every day, hundreds of pickup trucks, donkeys and even people carry goods to many towns and villages dotting the border. These smugglers are from poor Kurdish towns and villages nearby.

The same goes on across the frontier.

The Iranian government says unemployment is rampant in its majority-Kurdish provinces, which are mainly near the border. The province of Kermanshah, according to Iranian data, has the country’s highest unemployment rate, at 22 percent.

In Iraq, things are no better. Unemployment in Kurdistan stood at 14% in 2017, and officials in Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, warn that the number will rise.

Ayar Nazm is a resident of Tawalla. He is an unemployed 28-year-old college graduate who, like others, says smuggling goods is the only way to feed his family.

“I used to have a good job right after college. I was able to live off of it,” he says. “But I’ve been out of work for some time. There are few work opportunities in my area. Moving goods is the only thing we can do.”

Tawalla is just one of dozens of border villages in the same predicament.

Driving with Nazm in his white Land Cruiser along in the narrow, unpaved rocky roads, one can’t miss the sheer number of warehouses. They are full of goods waiting to be moved just a few hundred feet.

We come across one warehouse, with few young men working inside. The metal doors are open.

An older man slowly walks out. He’s in traditional Kurdish dress. His black mustache covers his mouth but we can hear him talking.

“How can I help you?” he asks.

I say through my interrupter that I am wondering about the goods inside, as well as their final destination.

He refuses to speak to us on camera but when I assure him we won’t record him, it seems to put him at ease.

“We have many different items inside,” he says. “TVs, refrigerators, new clothes and cigarettes. All going to Iran.”

Jameel is his first name. He says the products are delivered to the depot, and his employees then count and organize them, getting them ready for pickup.

Nazm says the major item smuggled out of Iran has been oil, but since US President Donald Trump levied more restrictions on Iran, the demand for other products has skyrocketed.

“You see that there are a lot of people at night coming to the Iraqi side,” he says. “Before, it was only a few. But since the sanctions, it’s obvious: They are coming to get everything here.”

Nazm adds that Iraq, and Tawalla, serve as transit points for expat Iranian merchants sending their goods to Iran.

“They bring it from Dubai to Erbil. From Erbil to Sulaymaniyah. From Sulaymaniyah to this site,” he explains.

Iran says the smugglers are hurting its economy. The smugglers sometimes manage to bribe Iranian border guards, but other times, the guards shoot them.

According to the Iran Human Rights Monitor, in 2018 alone, Iranian border guards killed 48 smugglers and wounded more than a 100.

Goods are moved back and forth, stockpiled on the beds of 4X4 trucks, on donkeys and even on the backs of people.

A smuggler, a small man in his 60s, shows up with ropes. Two other men help him to load a refrigerator on his back. He does not want to give his name.

The man waits for a signal from the Iranian side that the road is clear of border police. He then starts his eight-hour journey among walnut and pomegranate trees to stay out of sight. He risks his life to earn between $20 and $40 for each load.

The border is closely watched by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Surveillance has intensified since the reintroduction of US sanctions.

As we drive close to the border, we encounter an arrest operation – local Iraqi police have just apprehended two smugglers and donkeys laden with goods on their way to Iran.

The police confiscate the goods and detain the smugglers. They let the donkeys go.

We want to talk to them, but a nervous border policeman prevents us from filming.

Nazm, like other smugglers, spends his nights smoking, drinking dark sweet tea and waiting for his counterparts to arrive from the other side… only to repeat the entire process again and again.

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