Iran’s health ministry has decided to drastically slash its birth control programs in a bid to increase its population, amid fears that the country’s growth rate has slowed down too much.
Although half of Iran’s population of 75 million people is under 35, the country's annual growth rate has plunged to 1.2 percent from 3.9 percent in 1986 (it's among 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 that 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 and 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."
Dr. Peter Liotta, a professor of political science at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., and an expert on demographics, cautions that uncertainty about the future, high inflation and unemployment, and international sanctions, are hardly guarantees that Iran will suddenly see a spike in its fertility rates. “Couples seem to be intentionally keeping their families small or delaying marriages because of this uncertain future,” he said.
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."
Ironically, more babies might actually hurt the current regime since Iranian youths form the core of the opposition to the government.
“Iran should also keep in mind that it was youth who brought about the Arab Spring, and remember the disastrous results of the 2009 presidential election and popular protests,” Liotta added.
“As the National Intelligence Council’s Global Tends 2025 suggested, in Iran, the state’s politically restless, job-hungry youth bulge will dissipate this decade, yielding a more mature population and work force growth rates.”
This development, Liotta notes, could turn out to be a “demographic bonus,” with perhaps a more educated and developed Iran of 2025, where young adults will find career and consumption more attractive than extremist politics.
“Whether or not there is a generation behind to follow them, we do not know at this point,” he added.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.