Why Iran's baby boom ambitions are falling on deaf ears

7 min read
15 July, 2022
In-depth: Despite a failing economy, Iran is pushing for population growth by offering incentives and curtailing access to contraceptives and abortion. But Iranians, especially young ones, are rejecting the government’s agenda.

As the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling has sparked a global debate over abortion, the Iranian people have turned to social media to reject the hardline administration of President Ebrahim Raisi’s aggressive population policy and its baby boom ambitions. 

In a country of 85 million in which the median age is 31 and almost two-thirds of the population are under 40 years of age, the Iranian government is pushing for resistance against demographic ageing and jumping through hoops to boost the fertility rate.

In 2013, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei explicitly demanded that the population should nearly double to 150 million and the government’s planning needs to be adjusted with that goal in mind. 

Defying the norms of Iran’s increasingly liberal-minded middle class centred on smaller core families and more privacy and leisure time for couples, the government is hyping a narrative that having more children would be tantamount to greater welfare.

As a result, years of family planning involving universities, the healthcare sector and other state agencies are being bad-mouthed as ungodly and a Western conspiracy to curtail the population of a Muslim nation. 

"Defying the norms of Iran’s increasingly liberal-minded middle class centred on smaller core families and more privacy and leisure time for the couples, the government is hyping a narrative that having more children would be tantamount to greater welfare"

The Raisi administration is offering packages of financial incentives to families with more children as part of a long-winded plan of action to counter what the authorities say is a trend of ageing in the country.

Handing out low-interest loans of roughly $6,300 to couples who get married before the age of 25, multiplying the wages of married government employees with children and disbursing loans to families for the birth of each new child that can add up to one billion Iranians rials ($3,125) for the fifth newborn are examples of what is on offer. 

Yet, aside from the stimulus proposals, the state-sanctioned “Youthful Population and Protection of the Family” plan adopted in November 2021 entails severe punitive stipulations, as well. Described by the United Nations experts as “crippling for women and girls’ right to health,” the law criminalises the facilitation of abortion on a large scale, which can be termed as “corruption on the earth,” a felony that under the Sharia law can carry the death penalty.  

Restricted access to contraceptives, which won’t be distributed freely anymore, and prohibition of voluntary sterilisation are other measures foreseen in the new agenda. In addition, for women to be able to obtain therapeutic abortion, a panel made of a judge, a medical doctor and a forensic doctor must pass a binding decision allowing the termination of pregnancy, rather than the woman being able to make the decision in consultation with her trusted doctor. 

Live Story

The new curbs are expected to spur more clandestine abortions, which are believed to be significantly unsafe and detrimental to the health of pregnant women.

According to local data and the United Nations, somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 illegal abortions occur in Iran per year. World Health Organization reports that between 4.7 and 13.2% of maternal deaths every year could be due to unsafe abortions. Across the developing world, roughly 220 women die for every 100,000 illegal abortions. 

The Iranian public is widely sceptical of the establishment’s avarice for population growth and its curbs on access to reproductive health, with many families questioning the rationality of having more children in the face of an economy that is in the doldrums and flailing on different fronts.

Many cite that Iranians already living in the country are having a hard time making the ends meet and are hard-pressed to survive, arguing that there is no point in doubling the population while the government lacks the wherewithal to cater to the needs of its current constituents. 

An Iranian physician works with samples at a fertility centre in Tehran on June 29, 2016. Rising infertility, coupled with increasingly liberal attitudes towards family planning, have resulted in a decline in population growth in Iran. [Getty]

Currently, the annual inflation rate, as reported by the Statistical Centre of Iran (SCI), stands at 40.2%, while the costs of food and beverages have spiked by 49.6% and 43.5% respectively. Also, as many as 11 million Iranians are living under the official poverty threshold, and 10.9% of the labour force is unemployed.  

These figures paint a bleak picture of the state of the national economy, exacerbated by external pressure. In the absence of foreign investment induced by years of unrelenting sanctions, it has become virtually impossible for the government to renovate the infrastructure or plough money into essential housing, urban construction, transportation, civil aviation, education, healthcare, and environmental projects.

This means Iranians are living on the scorched earth of poverty and austerity while the energy-rich country possesses the second largest natural gas reserves in the world and the fourth largest crude oil reserves. 

“The government does not even have the resources to manage the current population in increasingly dire inflation. All environmental signs point away from the increase of population as well [and] more importantly, people are not buying the government propaganda about the advisability of doubling the population,” said Ahmad Sadri, an Iran expert and professor of sociology at the Lake Forest College. 

"Most experts argue the government's publicity on the imperative of increasing the family size will fall on deaf ears as long as there are no fundamental reforms in the Islamic Republic's foreign policy and its conduct toward its own people"

Sadri believes the impulse for population growth will be short-lived and unsustainable. “Mr Khamenei is nursing the dream of a much bigger population for Iran. That is mostly a pipe dream," he told The New Arab

“But he will continue to push his plans, as he did in the case of propagating conspiracy theories about Covid. Eventually he reversed himself. The same will happen in the case of his population policies.”

But most experts argue the government’s publicity on the imperative of increasing the family size will fall on deaf ears as long as there are no fundamental reforms in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and its conduct toward its own people, which can contribute to a more prosperous living for the average Iranian stripped of economic opportunities and civil liberties. 

Live Story

“The dilemma for the Islamic Republic leadership is that it cannot grow the population and enjoy any degree of political stability without healthy relations with the rest of the world, without massive infusions of technology to improve agricultural yields and preserve limited environmental resources, without adequate investment in healthcare and other public welfare programs, and without the prospects of social freedom and economic growth that will encourage young people to remain in Iran and build their future there,” said Pedram Partovi, associate professor of history at the American University. 

“A growing sense of hopelessness about improving socioeconomic conditions has only spurred migration from Iran, especially among those who have recently come of age and on whom the government’s goals of population growth most depend,” he told The New Arab

Despite its monetary constraints, the Iranian government invests heavily in ingraining its preferred lifestyle in society. For instance, at least 32 government agencies are tasked with enforcing the Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab regulations.

The same holds true about its population policies. But the young population, drained from the authorities’ persistent intrusion into their personal choices, toil away at minimising the role of the state in their lives. 

"The young population, drained from the authorities' persistent intrusion into their personal choices, toil away at minimising the role of the state in their lives"

“The young generation is very rebellious in part because of economic conditions. Iran’s youths are already suffering from declining resources as their per capita come is lower than what their older brothers and sisters made in 1976,” said Misagh Parsa, professor of sociology at Dartmouth College. 

“They have been increasingly rejecting the traditional family norms by engaging in 'white marriages', living with their partners without the social and legal commitments,” he added.

“The country is already suffering from shortages of housing, schools, hospitals, doctors and nurses, not to mention water that is unavailable in several parts of the country. Such a huge expansion of the population will only intensify the problems of poverty and inequalities,” he told The New Arab.

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iran correspondent of Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.

Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari