Ageing Iran is a bit like a Greek tragedy

Khamenei’s policy is the latest swing in Iran’s erratic family planning policy.
Sunday 09/12/2018
An elderly man holds a newspaper as he walks on a  sidewalk in Tehran. (Reuters)
Changing demographics. An elderly man holds a newspaper as he walks on a sidewalk in Tehran. (Reuters)

“No man delights in the bearer of bad news,” the ancient Greek tragedian writes in “Antigone.” Nowhere is this as true as in contemporary Iran.

Environmental and wildlife activists were arrested earlier this year on espionage charges. Before the arrests, they warned the public an entire species was at risk of extinction.

Now, Iran has shifted its focus to demographers. They have been expressing concern about Iran’s ageing population.

The arrest of Meimanat Hosseini Chavoshi attests to the new trend. Chavoshi is a dual Iranian-Australian citizen and a research fellow at Australian National University. In 2009, she won Iran’s Book of the Year award for “The Fertility Transition in Iran: Revolution and Reproduction,” co-written with Peter McDonald and Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi.

However, the daily newspaper Kayhan and Tehran’s security services do not seem to share the Iranian scientific community’s enthusiasm for the book.

Kayhan disclosed that Chavoshi had been arrested by “unknown helpers of the Imam of the Era.” It was a reference to agents of the Ministry of Intelligence.

The newspaper made claims that Chavoshi, a former employee of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education, had, on several occasions, “under cover of research, taken sensitive intelligence concerning public health and population to the enemies of the country.”

The Kayhan columnist identified institutions engaged in overthrowing the Islamic Republic through family planning research. They include the Ford, Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, along with the UN Population Fund.

The specific source of the intelligence ministry’s unhappiness with Chavoshi’s research appears to be her prediction of low fertility rates in Iran. This is quoted at length in Kayhan: “Increased urbanisation, higher age of marriage and global culture will most certainly result in lower fertility rates in the next decade. Even if the economy of the families improves, one can expect them to invest in the quality [of life] of their children rather than increase the number of children.”

In other words, Chavoshi was not prescribing a specific policy but predicting a trend, one that runs counter to the views of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has a pro-natalist policy.

Khamenei’s policy is the latest swing in Iran’s erratic family planning policy. In the mid-1960s, the Iranian government established more than 2,000 health clinics as part of its attempts to reduce fertility rates. The clinics, however, were not particularly successful and Iran’s population grew despite government attempts to control it.

After the revolution of 1979 and the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for the establishment of a “million man army.” The government consequently introduced measures to increase the fertility rate. The legal age to marry was lowered to 9 for girls and 14 for boys. Polygamy was legalised, and the price of birth control pills artificially inflated. The result: Iran’s population went from 27 million in 1968 to 55 million in 1988.

Faced with a population explosion, Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khamenei started a nationwide campaign to reverse the policy of the first decade of the revolution. Under the slogan “Farzand-e Kamtar, Zendegi-ye Behtar!” (“Fewer Children, Better Life!”) the Health Ministry introduced contraceptives. They were available in big cities and the most remote villages. Ration cards and food subsidies were reduced for large families.

The third radical reversal of this policy emerged under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His government advocated for large families with the slogan: “Ba Yek Gol Bahar Nemishavad” (“A Single Flower Blooming is No Springtime”). And Khamenei, too, is urging Iranian families to have more children, which can offset the reality that Iran is ageing.

With this approach, it is hardly surprising that the Intelligence Ministry does not, as the Greek monologue put it, delight in the bearer of bad news. In this case, it is Chavoshi.