As Iranians took to the streets in cities and towns across the country last month in response to a massive fuel hike tax, the northern province of Guilan stood out as an exception.
Home to more than 2.5 million people, and bordering Russia from its perch on the Caspian Sea, Guilian’s muted reaction to the protest movement offers a window into the economic inequalities in the Islamic Republic today, as well as the resignation felt by many Iranians under US sanctions.
Figures by the Statistical Center of Iran indicate Guilan is the fifth richest province of Iran, outpacing 26 provinces in terms of household net worth thanks to its agricultural resources.
According to the Rice Research Institute of Iran, Guilan is the most important producer of high-quality rice nationally. The province is also the heart of Iran’s tea production.
Historically, Guilan has been known as Iran’s gateway to Europe, due to the heavy involvement of the Russian Empire in the province.
Today, Russia maintains a Consulate General in the provincial capital of Rasht. The province shares a land border with the Republic of Azerbaijan and is connected by sea to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.
Guilan greatly benefits from this geography, exporting considerable quantities of goods from its ports of Bandar-e Anzali and Astara to the Caspian Sea countries and beyond to Turkey and several European states.
The first six months of the Iranian calendar year, beginning in March, saw a total of US$182 million worth of goods exported from Guilan’s harbors.
Although Guilan suffers from a dearth of modern infrastructure, mostly in the transportation and housing sectors, its people do not face the level of deprivation or sectarian fault lines which Iranians in southern and western parts of the country wrestle with.
Guilanis generally have less resentment toward the government and more tolerance for shocks such as the one triggered by the government’s decision to multiply the gasoline price.
In the 2020 budget bill, which President Rouhani submitted to the parliament on December 6, Guilan was one of the provinces being allocated the smallest share of the national budget, in recognition of its relatively well-off position.
Samaneh Tohidzadeh, a young physics teacher and nanophysics graduate student in Rasht, says local resources have allowed the people of Guilan to be self-reliant.
In Tohidzadeh’s view, the “resistance economy” promoted by the authorities – switching to domestic inputs, bartering, etc – “is only being tested on underprivileged groups.”
Yet the people of Guilan are already implementing their own resistance economy, relying on local resources as opposed to outside aid.
The people of Guilan have less reliance on the state economy and administrative jobs, and even the government employees earn the greater portion of their income through agriculture and investment on the lands they own.
Other residents of Guilan say they have simply accepted that crippling US sanctions are an inescapable reality that will be impacting their daily lives for the foreseeable future.
For some Iranians, moving out of the country is the panacea. “However, it should be noted the unfavorable economic conditions and the fluctuations of foreign currencies have taken a toll on people’s ability to emigrate.
According to UN figures, there were 2.68 million Iranians living outside the Islamic Republic, a country of more than 80 million, as of this year.
At the same time, she says, people have lost hope of a breakthrough or change in Iranian policies that would allow the sanctions to be lifted.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2019.
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