Iran’s health ministry has decided to drastically slash its birth control programs in a bid to increase the population, amidst fears that the country’s growth rate has slowed down too much.
Although half of Iran’s 75-million population is under the age of 35, the annual growth rate has plunged to 1.2 percent from 3.9 percent in 1986 (amongst the highest rate in the world at the time).
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that the birth control program, in place for the past twenty years, has outlived its purpose and raised the risk of Iran’s people aging, resulting in potential negative growth and soaring health care costs.
Following a surge in the birth rate in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution (which was demanded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who wished for a large army to support the theocratic state), Tehran officials eventually feared a population explosion would overwhelm resources and started to enact a strict birth control policy in the early 1990s.
The health ministry’s program of encouraging vasectomies, issuing contraceptives, implementing family planning advice led to a plunge in the country’s fertility rates. The United Nations revealed in a 2009 report that Iran had the largest drop in fertility rates among all nations since 1980 – quite astonishing for a Muslim country.
Health minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi told Iranian reporters that the government will now spend 190 billion rials (about $15 billion) to encourage Iranians to have larger families.
"The budget for the population control program has been fully eliminated and such a project no longer exists in the health ministry," she said. "The policy of population control does not exist as it did previously."
Khameini said he would like to see Iran’s population at least double to 150-million, or perhaps reach as high as 200-million.
"The policy of population restriction should definitely be revised and the authorities should build the culture in order to abandon the current status of one child, two children [per family]," he said. "The figure of 150 or 200 million was once stated by the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] and that is the correct figure that we should reach."
He added: "Scientific and experts studies show that we will face population aging and reduction [in population] if the birth-control policy continues."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has long urged people in his country to have more babies. In 2008, he unveiled a plan to pay £600 ($930) for every newborn infant, followed by an annual payment of £60 every year until the child reached the age of 18.
Ali Reza Mesdaghinia, the deputy health minister, told the Fars news agency that having large families is an Iranian tradition that should be restored.
"In our culture, having a large number of children has been a tradition. In the past families had five or six children. … The culture still exists in the rural areas,” he said.
“We should go back to our genuine culture."
However, Iran’s precarious economic conditions – featuring high unemployment, rising prices and the debilitating effects of western sanctions on the key oil sector – may dissuade Iranian couples from having more children. In addition, as in western nations, some customs in Iran are changing – many young Iranians are delaying marriage, or staying single their whole lives.
"Our problem is that our young people either don't marry or marry late and in Iran, as long as there is no marriage, there are no babies,” Ali Reza Marandi, a former health minister and current member of the parliamentary health committee, told the Arman newspaper of Iran.
“And those people who marry late suffice to only one child."
Abbas Kazemi, a doorman, told Associated Press that having more children is unthinkable to him.
"I cannot afford daily life," he said. "I have to support my wife and two children as well my elderly parents."
Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva, commented creating more babies might actually hurt the current regime since Iranian youths form the core of the opposition to the government.
"Young people are the heart of the Arab Spring, or the Islamic Awakening as Iran calls it," he said.
"Countries that haven't faced major protests during the Arab Spring still have to be mindful that the demands of the youth are still there."
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.