Khamenei speaks on demography

Reuters

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits next to a portrait of late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini while taking part in a television live program in Tehran on the occasion of the Iranian New Year March 21, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • With the population aging, Ali Khamenei is urging a rethink of Iran's family planning practices to once again encourage larger families.

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  • Iranian women's choice to eschew large families also suggests a cultural shift toward more Western, industrialized values.

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  • Regime concern over Iran's declining birthrate is not a passing subject, but a growing concern.

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One of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's first actions upon leading the Islamic Revolution was to ban contraception. Over the subsequent decade, coinciding not only with revolution but also the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian birthrate skyrocketed. The new regime encouraged the baby boom, as it published posters showing a good Islamic family with a mother, father, and six or seven children. This created great strains on the economy which, with the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran could no longer ignore. Over the subsequent decade, Iran's growth rate plummeted. The proportion of the Iranian population under five years old plummeted from 18 percent in 1986 to 10 percent a decade later. The Institut National d'Etudes Demographiques in Paris estimated that Iran's total fertility rate fell from 6.2 children per woman in 1986 to just 3.5 seven years later. By 2000 it was 2.0, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1. With the population aging, Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as supreme leader in 1989, is urging a rethink of Iran's family planning practices to once again encourage larger families.

It is in this context that Khamenei's most recent speech, excerpted here, is interesting. Regime concern over Iran's declining birthrate is not a passing subject, but a growing concern. An aging population not only will put strains on Iran's already strained social service network, but also heralds growing problems for the economy as the workforce shrinks. It also has military implications, as Iranian leaders calculate that they must rely on a qualitative (perhaps nuclear) military edge rather than a quantitative one, defined by simply having hundreds of thousands more conscript age soldiers than any other regional states besides Turkey and Pakistan.

Iranian women's choice to eschew large families also suggests a cultural shift toward more Western, industrialized values, which Khamenei understands will have a long-term corrosive impact on his notion of the Islamic Republic. Not only do smaller families suggest that women are ignoring the clerical hierarchy's calls for women to focus more on the home, but so far as it correlates to a rising age of marriage, high divorce rates, and an increasing choice by some Iranian women to remain single, it also suggests additional social problems on the horizon.

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  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


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