Iran ends population control programs, says the the country must expand to 150-200 million people

In recent years Iran’s senior political leadership, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have criticized population control policies in the country and talked about reversing the decline in birth rates in the Islamic Republic. The regime now appears to be taking concrete steps to make this new discourse a reality.

Yesterday, Iran’s health ministry declared that the budget for family planning and population control had been eliminated in its entirety, and was being replaced with a 190 billion rial ($15 million) line of credit that would promote population growth by offering pregnant mothers better pre- and post-natal care and fathers of newborns a two week paid paternity leave. If implemented, this policy would be one of the first of its kind in the Islamic Republic.

This announcement comes on the heels of a comments last week by Khamenei, who said that while birth control policies may have been correct in the 1990s after the 1980s baby boom, they were a mistake today. He urged Iranian officials to do whatever they can to end the culture of one one or two child families, saying that it was the Islamic Republic’s founder the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who had first mentioned 150-200 million as a target population for Iran.

Editor’s note: This recent reversal must be seen in the context of the larger history of population control in the Islamic Republic and why birth rates have declined in recent years. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Khomeini ended population control policies and called on Iranians to have more children (in part to support the war effort against Iraq), resulting in a baby boom which more than doubled Iran’s population.

State and society were ill prepared to deal with these children of the revolution and war, who faced shortages of everything from powdered milk to natal care. When they grew to adolescence in the 1990s they faced unprecedented levels of competition for limited places in primary, secondary, and postsecondary education. National examinations for elite public universities became a rite of passage which could determine a person’s entire future and social status, placing enormous pressure on young Iranians to perform academically. As young adults, these baby boomers now face high levels of un- and under-employment, a shortage of affordable housing, and many other social and economic ills. The regime’s negative track record with the last baby boom poses important questions about why it is making this about face in its population control policy and whether under current conditions the goal of a population of 150-200 million people is realistic.

Under normal circumstances, Iran’s baby boomers would naturally expand the population significantly by having two or more children. But these are not normal times for Iran, and at least three factors stand in the way of this radical population expansion plan. First and foremost, this generation of Iranians is economically insecure. A combination of government mismanagement and corruption and economic sanctions have meant that the Iranian economy, despite benefiting from massive petroleum reserves and a highly educated workforce, has been unable to provide jobs for young adults. This, on top of the recent implementation of the Targeted Subsidy Plan (TSP) has meant that Iranians have been forced to cut back on many essential goods including food, housing, and home appliances. Second, the repressive social atmosphere in the country has had the opposite effect the regime had hoped for, with many youth now seeking fun and leading sexually promiscuous lives instead of looking to build stable families. Under these economic and social conditions, many Iranians are either unable or unwilling to get married, and many of those who do marry end up divorced within a few years. Are current government inducements enough to convince Iranians to get married in higher numbers and have more children? It seems doubtful.

Finally, even if Iran could reach its proposed population target, it seems doubtful that the country has the basic resources to support such a large population. Everything from the country’s health and education infrastructure to its water and power supply would be placed under enormous strain. Already, urban areas suffer from overcrowding, high levels of pollution, and chronic congestion of the main transport arteries.

Why is the regime seeking radical population growth at this time? Why would the Islamic Republic end a policy which is lauded globally as a success and is one of the few positive results of its rule since the beginning of the 1990s? It is difficult to know for certain, but there may be at least three reasons which are not mutually exclusive. First, the regime could be looking at implementing an economic model predicated on the availability of cheap labour, similar to the one which is helping the economic rise of China today. Second, a larger population could raise Iran’s geopolitical status in the region, and form the basis of a larger economy and military. Finally, population control policies have likely contributed to greater female participation in education and the workplace, enhancing the role of women in society and weakening the traditional family structure in which women stay home to raise children. The regime may be seeking to reverse the gains women have made (often despite the regime) in the last three decades.

As more information emerges on this new policy, we will be sure to bring you the latest.