Iran Needs More Babies

Iran's families are getting smaller. Flickr photo by Adam Jones

Iran’s families are getting smaller. Flickr photo by Adam Jones


There are some things in Iran that are not in short supply. You need natural gas? No problem. Looking for some pistachios? They have you covered. Is your floor looking rather unadorned? They can give you a carpet with few rivals. And when it comes to women’s clothing, well, black is the new black.

Unfortunately, there are some items that are less common in Iran, or at least not as plentiful as they would prefer. Airplane parts would be one of them. International trade would be another. Surely some (but likely not all) would prefer that the country had a few more nuclear weapons. However, these deficits may all prove easier to overcome than the one that Iran’s government is currently campaigning against: a lack of babies.

The population of Iran is actually one of the largest in the Middle East, standing at about 75 million in the 2011 census. (The U.S., for comparison, now has over 300 million people.) Compare this with the population of pre-revolution Iran in 1970, which was around 28 million. Since that point, the population has more than doubled. This would lead one to believe that Iran seems to be having no trouble being fruitful and multiplying.

However, a closer look at the statistics reveals another trend, one that is concerning to the Iranian government. The average fertility rate between 1965 and 1970 was a massive 6.68, meaning that the average Iranian woman was having 6-7 children over the course of her lifetime. Between 1985 and 1990, after the Iran-Iraq war had taken a toll on the nation, that number had dropped slightly to a fertility rate of 5.62. This was a slight dip but not much to be concerned about.

What happened next was monumental. In the period 1995-2000, the fertility rate in Iran was just 2.61, a figure more in line with highly developed countries. The number continued to shrink to 1.97 in 2000-2005 and 1.89 in 2005-2010. The most recent data available from the World Bank indicates that Iran’s fertility rate in 2011 was 1.9 (or about two children per woman), equal to that of the United States. That is a massive change over the course of one generation.

Graphic by Wikipedia user Psirus

Graphic by Wikipedia user Psirus

The drop off in the number of babies that Iranian women are having can also be inferred from the population pyramid above. Notice the bulge that occurs when you get to people in their 20s and 30s. Those were the children born in the first decade or so after the Iranian Revolution. When it comes to people younger than 20, the numbers decrease substantially.

How did it come to this? An insightful article from Bloomberg offers some explanation:

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had introduced family planning in the late 1960s, adopting a two-child policy. After the 1979 revolution, and the outbreak of war the following year, leaders dismantled the program, providing benefits for women willing to deliver an Islamic generation. By 1986, Iran had one of the world’s highest fertility rates.

Faced with reconstruction costs and declining oil revenues after 8 years fighting its neighbor, Iran urged moderation. By 1993, inducements were restricted to three children and couples planning to marry had to attend birth-control classes.

As it turns out, children are really expensive, so much so that having a lot of them seems to hold countries back in terms of economic development. If you examine this map based on CIA World Factbook data, you can see that the nations with the highest total fertility rate are also among the poorest in the world. Therefore, when Iran was in need of money in the early 1990s, the decision to embrace a smaller family size made sense.

Well, you know what they say: you can have too much of a good thing. Too many children places a high burden on families, giving them a lot of mouths to feed. On the other hand, if you start having too few children, particularly if that development is accompanied by a rise in life expectancy, you run into another problem: too few working age people to provide for all the retired people. This is the situation that many highly developed countries are now in, and if the baby drought continues in Iran, it could end up with the same result.

All of this points to something about Iran that many people in America fail to appreciate. Iran is not the misogynistic, illiterate backwater that some would suppose. It has a well educated populous, and that includes its women. Although Iranian women only make up 20% of the workforce, they account for 60% of all university students. The gender power equation can shift significantly from this kind of sea change, as seen in the United States.

Perhaps the most interesting comment in the Bloomberg article came from Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, the director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C.: “‘In the 1970s, family planning clinics in rural areas gave the pill to the husband. Today, they hand out condoms to the wife,’ she said. ‘It shows you who’s in control.’” This does not mean that Iran is on par with Western conceptions of women’s rights, but it is still significant.

Iran's first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, with a child. This image, available on Wikipedia, is in the public domain.

Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, with a child. This image, available on Wikipedia, is in the public domain.

Even the Supreme Leader realizes that Iran has a demographic problem. “‘If we move forward like this, we’ll be a country of elderly people in the not-too-distant future,’ Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a father of six, said in October. ‘There was an imitation of western life and we inherited this.’”

Ah, yes – Iranian political leaders love to emphasize how terrible Western influence is. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, Iran seems to be suffering from a case of “Occidentosis” (to use a term coined by Jalal Al-i Ahmad in his book of the same name). Iranian politicians (at least, the non-clerical ones) can often be seen wearing typical Western-style business suits, but they do not wear neck ties, because this would apparently demonstrate too much foreign influence. This seems to be a perfect example of the conundrum in which Iran finds itself.

You see, the demographic shift is not just a sociological curiosity. It actually represents a potential threat to the current regime ruling the country. “As the foot-soldiers of Iran’s revolution near retirement, an aging population may curb the power aspirations of Iran’s ruling clerics,” the Bloomberg article states. “Regional influence comes with an economy capable of paying for it….The International Monetary Fund said in February that Iran required deep labor and credit reforms to escape economic contraction and inflation of about 30 percent. Growth over the next 12 months may be as low as 1 percent.”

What is the Iranian government doing to encourage families to have more children? President Hassan Rouhani plans to raise the amount of required maternity leave to nine months instead of the current six months. Fathers will also be given 10 days off of work for a new baby. These measures do not go as far as those being employed in many western European countries (where the population is almost universally shrinking), but they do signal a new approach on the part of the government in Tehran.

Iran’s political leaders are also not above using that most Western method of advocacy – mass advertisements – to get their point across. “In December, billboards with the messages ‘A single blossom is not spring,’ and ‘More children, better lives,’ appeared across Tehran. They depicted a happy father and his four children – three boys, one girl – on a single bicycle, trailed by a sad looking dad with his only son. There was no sign of a mother.” This seems to be the polar opposite of the propaganda used by the Chinese government over the past few decades to promote the one-child policy.

For all of the time that analysts and politicians have spent tearing their hair out over Iran’s nuclear program, (allegedly, but really not allegedly) funding of terrorist groups, support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and crackdown on Iranian dissidents, it is ironic that the greatest threat to the much-hated Iranian regime does not come from its military foes. All of the threats leveled by world leaders have not produced the same level of urgency among Iranian leaders that they seem to be displaying in response to their current economic situation.

Far reaching sanctions imposed by the West have taken a heavy toll on Iran’s economy, and this appears to be the stimulus behind the country’s recent return to the bargaining table, which bought them a temporary respite from some of the sanctions in exchange for good behavior. An inability to fix some of the nation’s biggest financial problems likely helped to turn public opinion against former President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad during his second term. (They voted for a candidate from a different party in the next presidential election.) Now, the long-term threat of an increasingly dependent population has created enough concern among the nation’s leaders that they are going public with their pleas for more babies.

A typical Iranian family with two children. Photo by Wikipedia user Adam Jones

A typical Iranian family with two children. Photo by Wikipedia user Adam Jones

This is a good reminder of a basic political truth: nothing turns public opinion against a government like economic problems. People can often forgive their politicians for scandals that don’t seem to affect ordinary citizens. They can rally behind their leaders when they antagonize foreign countries, because this makes a politician look tough and willing to stand on principle. But when people are having trouble buying food, getting an education, or holding on to a job, and are seeing all their savings go down the drain, they tend to get very upset.

It is no secret that American policy makers would like to see the current Iranian regime go “bye bye”, or at least undergo significant reforms. Since 1979, the U.S. has done a lot of things to try to make that happen. We supported Sadaam Hussein when Iraq invaded its neighbor in the wake of Iran’s revolution, a short-sighted decision that had negative consequences.

In 2012, the Obama administration decided to no longer list the Mujahideen-e-Kalq, an Iranian opposition group that has embraced violence in the past, as a terrorist organization. We even (allegedly, but really not allegedly) infected Iranian nuclear sites with a computer virus the likes of which the world had never seen. Yet, Iran’s anti-American government continues to hang on, like that cold you got a month ago that is still causing you to hack up half a lung.

Could it be that – as H.G. Wells famously wrote in War of the Worlds – “after all man’s devices had failed”, the outcome most desired by Americans could come about by no effort on our part, but rather by the fundamental forces of economics and demographics which perform their works on all of us each and every day? I can hardly predict the future, but I know a good case of irony when I see it, and I am seeing it right now in Iran.