By Monavar Khalaj in Tehran
July 23, 2012 4:18 pm
When Maryam, a teacher, and her husband Hossein, an engineer, married eight years ago, the middle-class Iranian couple agreed to something almost unthinkable in previous generations: they would have no children.
In todays Iran, their decision is hardly unique: statistics show 19 per cent of couples are childless, while 17.5 per cent have one child and 17 per cent have two.
The size of the countrys families has for decades reflected ideological and political decisions made at the top. Following the 1979 revolution, the Islamic regime pushed for rapid population growth in the hope of raising a 20m-strong army. But following a census in 1986, the warnings started coming in: that growth was leading to mass unemployment and declining education levels.
The ruling clerics decided to curb the population explosion, which by 1986 had reached a peak growth rate of 3.2 per cent. Thanks to the support of the clergy and a free and popular family planning scheme, population growth declined dramatically.
Today the population growth rate stands at 1.2 per cent, with the fertility rate, representing the average number of children born per woman, standing at 1.6. That number is well below the 2.1 that is considered the minimum rate needed in the industrialised world for a population to avoid decline. This, in turn, has led to a new wake-up call.
President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad was the first politician to bring the issue into the spotlight. In 2010 he spoke against encouraging couples to limit their family size to two children, labelling such a limit as a misguided western policy. He said Iran could have a population of 150m, double its size.
He was immediately backed by some radical clerics in the religious city of Qom, who were concerned about the decline in the overall population of Shia Muslims, a minority sect in most of the Islamic world whose largest number are found in Shia-majority Iran. The clerics called for the government to stop all measures encouraging birth control.
Ghasem Ravanbakhsh, a Qom-based cleric, sees the family planning scheme as a conspiracy by Zionists to shrink the Iranian population, saying this danger could be defeated only by the people having more children.
But not all agreed with Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, whose remarks sparked outcry among some experts. They argued that a quick increase in population would lead to heightened unemployment and poverty.
The criticisms, however, did not make the president back down. He has continued to insist on encouraging families to have more children, although no apparent change has been seen in general population policies.
Two years on, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has found more advocates. Experts say policy should be updated to include a smart birth control, encouraging growth in regions of the country where the fertility rate is below the replacement level of 2.1, while maintaining or even increasing family planning services in areas with higher rates.
Studies on new approaches are also under way in the State Expediency Council, which drafts the general policies of the country under the supervision of its leadership.
After 1992, Iran should not defend birth control policy any more, because it has reached the red line [of fertility rates], says Mohammad-Javad Mahmoudi, the head of the Population Studies and Research Centre in Asia and the Pacific, a state-run body that is affiliated to Irans Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. Now, the number of children must reach two [per family] at any cost, even if it leads to unemployment, because unemployment is better than extinction.
According to the UNs World Population Prospects in 2010 report, should birth rates continue their present pattern, Irans total population will begin falling in two decades, and shrink by more than half to 31m around 2100.
And demographic warnings go beyond a shrinking population. The countrys population is also ageing, and at present rates more than 50 per cent of all Iranians will be over 60 within six decades, according to the UN estimates.
Habibollah Zanjani, a prominent demographer, sees ageing as the most important population matter facing the country in the future.
Not only the number of elderly but also its impact on the population including an ageing of the workforce and support of elderly, will influence other aspects of the society, Mr Zanjani says, adding that the country is ill-prepared for such changes.
Demographers also see little sign that Iranian couples want more children, amid urbanisation, increasing female literacy and employment rates, and the average marriage age being pushed back.
Mr Mahmoudi of the Population Studies and Research Centre has doubts that birth rates can be turned round quickly or easily.
We cannot easily persuade people to have three or four children. Thats not a thing that could be done upon a government order, he says. I think if Iran reaches the day that each family has two children, we should make it a national celebration.