Trail Mix-Up

How easy is it to hike into the Islamic Republic of Iran by accident?

Sarah Shourd, one of three hikers who have been held in Iran for more than a year on charges of espionage, was released Tuesday on $500,000 bail. Along with her fiance and a friend, Shourd was arrested for spying at the border between Iraq and Iran in July 2009. The detainees said they had gotten lost while hiking. In the “Explainer” column reprinted below, Juliet Lapidos explains how difficult it would be to accidentally walk across the border in question.

Sarah Shourd. Click image to expand.
Sarah Shourd, one of three American hikers being held in Iran

Three Americans arrested on the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan will face trial on espionage charges, the Iranian foreign minister announced Monday. The group says they accidentally strayed into Iran during a hiking trip. Is it really possible to wander blithely into the Islamic Republic?

If you’re reckless. The mountainous region between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran is fairly safe and attracts a small number of tourists annually, but security is tight and visitors must register their passports at local hotels. On the roads, it’s difficult to drive half a mile without reaching a checkpoint of some kind. By all accounts, the American hikers would have had ample opportunity to orient themselves as to the whereabouts of the border, and there’s a good chance they would have received warnings about not getting too close. That said, there’s no wall, fence, barbed wire, natural landmarks, or signs saying, “Now Leaving Iraq” or “Welcome to Iran” to indicate the actual dividing line. Once you get close to the border, it’s possible to have one foot legally in Iraq and the other illegally in Iran without ever realizing it.

There are few official ports of entry between Iraq and Iran. (One, Bashmakh, is about a two-hour drive from where the hikers crossed over.) Iraqi Border Police, with occasional consulting help from American forces, provide security at these locations, scanning Iraq-bound trucks for contraband and the like. Police are also stationed at forts dotted along the 900-mile border. But there is no steady military presence, making it quite easy for smugglers, spies, and wayward hikers to cross at will. Of course, it’s not safe or advisable to do so, in part because the border area is littered with mines—a remnant of the Iran-Iraq war.

The border Iran shares with Afghanistan is also porous and poorly marked. According to some estimates, about half of the total Afghan opiate trade travels through Iran, with a heavily armed Afghan drug mafia lurking around the nearly 600-mile border. Iran’s border with Pakistan is a comparable mess. In 2007, Iran started building a wall along its southeastern edge to help stem the flow of black market goods and weapons. The Turkish border is far calmer, but not necessarily well-marked throughout. It’s possible to get close without noticing signs or security fences.

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Explainer thanks Janet Moore of Distant Horizons.

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