Not too long ago, Iranian state television aired a documentary on what it said was an “exemplary family” and a “special home.” The family’s home was simple, as one would expect in a rural village in northwestern Iran. The family’s income, like that of most other villagers in the region, came from weaving fine Persian carpets. Just like others in the province, the family baked their own bread and prepared their own meals. So why was this particular family singled out? The answer was in the numbers: this lovely family had no fewer than nineteen children—nineteen living children, to be precise, since three died before reaching adulthood.
Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy is playing a dangerous game. In the past two years, Iranian officials have followed the orders of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and have promoted an aggressive campaign to encourage Iranian couples to procreate rapidly. This was not always the case. Iran previously had one of the most successful examples of humane population and birth control practices in the world, and managed to save itself from a looming population crisis in the 1980s.
In the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, asked his countrymen and women to be fruitful. He sought to build a 20 million-strong army to liberate Jerusalem and to spread his Islamic Revolution.
His dream was never realized, as Iran’s more pragmatic leaders persuaded the Ayatollah to issue a fatwa to prevent a population time-bomb from exploding. Thus Iran began a well-orchestrated campaign of spreading effective family planning practices that penetrated even the most rural parts of the country. Furthermore, urbanization changed Iranians’ lifestyles, with more and more families migrating to cities and losing the incentive to have many children to work on the family farm.
But perhaps the most important lifestyle factor was the exponential growth of female college students. Today, women dominate Iranian universities and comprise a solid majority of students in almost every field. To the clergy’s dismay, this has increased the age of marriage in Iran, and has allowed women to focus on their education and careers.
So why is the Iranian government now seeking to increase the number of its citizens? The official explanation is simple: after two decades of family planning and birth control practices, Iran is facing an aging population. While more than 60 percent of Iranians are under thirty-five, they will eventually become consumers of costly medical care and retirement benefits, and the current population growth rate is insufficient to deal with the problem. But why is the government encouraging people to have as many as nineteen children, instead of the more usual two? The answer is hidden behind a veil of population politics.
Historically, Islam’s Shi’ite clergy have been against family planning practices. They encouraged large families, multiple wives and lots of children. Their reasoning was simple: Islam needed to grow, and what better way to grow Islam than through producing bigger Muslim families?
But this is not just a religious issue for the ruling Shi’ite clergy. Population politics has direct links to regime stability. The Islamic Republic has always benefited from the support of the so-called downtrodden, the underprivileged religious masses who are more likely to be poor and less likely to be educated. This would be the core population group most affected by aggressive population expansion policy. Indeed, given the large sums of government handouts on offer in the form of direct cash subsidies per person, these poor families will have an extra incentive to be fruitful.
No matter the intensity of the government’s efforts, educated middle-class families in Iran’s major cities will be uninterested in multiplying exponentially. But others won’t. And the last complication a country facing historic droughts, double-digit unemployment, and negative economic growth needs is tens of millions of children born into poor, under-educated and sectarian families.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.