Iran wants to boost births
Beirut - The decision by Iran’s leadership to reverse decades-old policies of family planning and encourage Iranians to have more children has not won international favour. Amnesty International said measures under discussion in parliament would reduce women to “baby-making machines”.
While many tend to see it as a land of young people, Iran’s population of 75 million is in fact ageing as the generation from the Iranian baby boom of the late 1970s and 1980s mature. Hence the fear expressed in 2013 by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Iran risked becoming a country of the elderly in the “not too distant” future while smaller families were “an imitation of Western life”.
It was an echo of a decree from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who, after returning from exile in the 1979 revolution, cited a need for a “return to values” and urged Iranians to have as many children as they could. This helped create the baby boom that helped nearly double the size of the Iranian population.
David Goldman, a fellow at the US think-tank the Middle East Forum, argues not just that falling population marks the decline of any “civilisation”, but that Iran’s stabilising population is driving alleged regional expansion and even the nuclear programme as a means to acquire weapons.
Two questions arise: First, to what extent can any government shape population? Second, how do the size and structure of population affect society and politics? The answers do not fit the generalisations of journalists or grand theorists.
True, Iran won UN praise for family-planning policies introduced around 1989. Free contraception and vasectomies, linked to public education, led to reducing the birth rate from 3.6 children per couple just after the 1979 revolution to 1.8 in the 1990s.
But the reasons Iranians had fewer children were complex. An increase in university education encouraged couples to delay marriage and higher material expectations, not always met, made smaller families more attractive.
The social and political effects of a lower birth rate have been disputed. Many analysts argue the Iranian baby-boomers became the “Khatami generation”, supporting reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, who was elected in 1997 and tried to increase civil freedoms.
One certain effect of the youth bulge was a demand for jobs the economy failed to meet. While the 2010-15 Five-Year Plan targeted a growth rate of 8% to absorb labour-market entrants, growth averaged just 1.5% in 2010-13. Youth unemployment, particularly among graduates, grew and helped fuel unrest after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
This was not what many conservative strategists had anticipated. They had expected ageing baby-boomers to mellow, turn away from demands for social freedom to more mundane matters like career, marriage and children. The conservatives considered this their political agenda, and then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought in policies to help with the costs of marriage.
Likewise, the Arab world shows the dangers of generalisations. Many young people supported the “Arab spring” and were prominent in 2009-10 protests as the self-immolation of 26-year-old Tunisian street-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi echoed round a region with half its population under 24, the world’s highest percentage outside sub-Saharan Africa.
But the age structure varies from country to country. The median age in the Arab world, compared with 28.5 years globally, ranged in 2012 from 31.6 in Qatar and 28 in the United Arab Emirates to 19.1 in Iraq and 18.1 in the Palestinian territories and Yemen (the same as found in sub-Saharan Africa).
In Iran the median age was 27, with a bulge of 20-30 year-olds. In Saudi Arabia, there is a bulge in the 30-40 age group (where there’s also a disproportionate number of males) and a second bulge of under- 10s. Yemen’s age profile shows the pyramid shape characteristic of the world’s poorest countries: the younger the group, the more people it has.
Worldwide, there’s no simple link between large numbers of young people and political unrest. “Youth bulges in East Asia have fuelled high economic growth rather than protests,” Ragui Assaad, professor of Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, told The Arab Weekly. “A youth bulge is a problem only in combination with other factors, for example, economic policies that discriminate against youth and limit their opportunities to find decent jobs.”
There’s a downside. If Iran’s leaders succeed in doubling the population to 150 million, “if not more”, as envisaged by Khamenei, they may exacerbate the country’s growing environmental problems.
President Hassan Rohani is already urging Iranians to curb water consumption. Recent research shows that Urmia, the Middle East’s largest salt-water lake, has shrunk 90% in 10 years, while important rivers like the Karoun are low or dry.
Despite growing diversion of water into agriculture, Iran has not reached self-sufficiency in wheat. And despite policies to dissuade people from heading to overcrowded urban areas, Tehran, the world’s tenth most densely populated city, has 13 million people and is heavily polluted.
Doubling the population could turn Goldman’s predictions on their head. With 150 million people, Iran would need far more energy. Despite rich reserves of natural gas and oil, it could be a rising rather than falling population that increases the attraction of nuclear power.