Five plump babies, swaddled and happy, sit beneath a sign. “The families, the young people, must reproduce more,” it reads. “If we can preserve the younger generation of today for tomorrow, all of the country’s problems will be solved through the readiness, joy, eagerness and the talent of the new generation of Iranians.” Signed: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This is the newest propaganda poster to be published on the Khamenei-Reyhaneh Instagram page, an account belonging to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, which has more than 75,000 followers. Khamenei delivered the above statement in September, triggering an outpouring of commentary and praise in Iranian media.
Khamenei also called the policy of population control that was adopted under the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the early 1990s, a mistake and apologized for his own part in it. This is one of the very few times in the last 30 years that the Supreme Leader has confessed to being wrong and offered his apologies.
Of course, he has never wavered in his belief that the best place for women is at home, taking care of the family. It is very unlikely that he will ever apologize for that. “The main question is the woman’s stewardship of the family,” said Khamenei to an audience of women marking Iran’s annual Women’s Day in 2014. He advised women not to be misled by notions of feminism. “We must clear our minds from Western clichés. One the biggest errors of Western thought is the subject of sexual equality.” Women, he declared, are naturally built for “a specific area of human life.”
That “specific area,” of course, is mostly about reproduction. Khamenei believes that Iran can support a population of 150 million. So, in recent years, the budget set aside for population control has been instead spent on promoting an increase in population, and many laws have been passed to make it easier for fathers in military service and for doctors and government employees.
The image posted on the Khamenei-Reyhaneh page inevitably elicited a range of different responses. Many people pointed to social and economic problems like unemployment and lack of job security. “As long as the statesmen are corrupt, nobody can solve the country’s problems,” commented one Instagram user called Mohammad Eslami.
“Shouldn’t they first solve the problems we young people confront so that we can bring up the next generation?” asked another, Shirin Eskandari. “How can we do it with all this unemployment, high prices and shortages? Always everything falls on the shoulders of helpless people.”
Women’s “Jihad”: Having Babies
After the poster appeared on Instagram, a number of conservative principlist media eagerly picked up the theme, quoting a May 2013 speech by Ayatollah Khamenei [Persian link] in which he characterized having children as “women’s jihad” — a religious obligation and one of their most important duties.
And there are other images on the Khamenei-Reyhaneh page that express the Supreme Leader’s view of women’s role in society. In them, women are always seen taking care of children and their main duty is defined as the “preservation of the family.”
Other posters warn about Iran’s aging population. One shows an old man holding his chin in his hands and sitting with his back to a wall adorned only with empty picture frames. The text accompanying the forlorn man is another quote from the same Khamenei speech: “Aging of the country and the dwindling of the young generation several years from now is something that will show its consequences later. And when the consequence show themselves it will be too late to set them right. But it is not too late today.”
In May 2014, the Supreme Leader outlined a 14-point plan for increasing the population. “In taking into consideration the positive role of population in the progress of the country, it is necessary to have comprehensive planning for economic, social and cultural growth to be in proportion to the population policies,” reads the introduction to the plan. (The original in Persian can be found here.)
But the plan was more than a manifesto for preventing population implosion. It also contained other political, social and religious connotations for Ayatollah Khamenei’s followers. For example, point five of the program called for “promoting and institutionalizing an Islamic-Iranian lifestyle and opposing undesirable aspects of the Western lifestyle.” And, when it was published, Friday Prayers leaders across Iran echoed its tenets from their pulpits.
Not All Babies are Created Equal
For health minister Hasan Hashemi, it meant that not all babies are created equal. In the summer of 2014, he announced policies to help doctors who deliver babies and emphasized that people must pay more attention to having children. He referred the public to Khamenei’s words on the matter: “Increasing the workforce is not the only goal, and the reproduction rate of all Iranians must increase.” He urged the Iranian “elite” to not “ignore having children.”
This emphasis on the elite and the educated is a general theme found on Khamenei-Reyhaneh Instagram posters, some of which show female university students — the “young elite” — meeting with the Supreme Leader.
Khamenei has said repeatedly that increasing Iran’s population will make Iran stronger. But some of his supporters among the clergy have also used his vision to push for more sectarianism. Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani, a religious authority in Qom, said Iran’s falling population threatens the dominance of Shias, suggesting other religious groups could rise in worrying numbers. And Nasser Rafiei, a teacher at Qom Seminary, reported that religious leaders were worried the Shia population was falling. According to him, in the academic year of 2013-2014 the ratio of Shia-Sunni population was 50-50, and in one city in Azerbaijan, this ratio was 30-70 — an alarming number for some religious authorities.
Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hardliner Friday Prayers Leader of the holy city of Mashhad, used fierce analogies to warn against the consequences of lower birth rates among Shias: “By using the scissors of Wahhabism and ignorance, world imperialism wants to cut Iran apart.”
In winter 2012, the magazine Shoma, the official organ of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, criticized the opponents of population increase policies. It warned that “the increase in the country’s Shia population has now fallen from 8.1 percent to 6.1 percent, while the rate of population increase among non-Shias is around seven percent.” According to Shoma, if this trend continues, within two decades, or at most three, Iran will no longer be a Shia-majority country.
In fact, there is quite a lot of opposition to the idea of increasing Iran’s population, but these voices are not heard much in Iran. Those who do speak out against it point to the increase in the number of working children, high unemployment, the high number of displaced Iranians and similar issues, and tend to argue that any plans to boost the population are dangerous and too ambitious. In summer 2017, Abbas Akhoundi, the Minister of Roads and Urban Development, said that, among Iran’s existing population of 80 million, 19 million people, or almost one in four, live in the margins of society.
If the person who designs these posters for Ayatollah Khamenei’s Instagram page set out to reflect a little bit of reality, he or she might have drawn one of those five babies wrapped in rags instead of comfortable bundles, perhaps with signs of poverty evident on their face. In fact, the designer might want to draw many such babies. That would give a more accurate picture of Iran and its population today.
For a humorous look at Iranian officials’ push to increase the population, read Touka Neyestani on “Operation 14 Children.”