Future historians will doubtless assert that the effort to encourage population growth in Iran was one Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s most important social projects. But Khamenei’s focus on demographics has already been a costly, useless and largely failed enterprise, mainly intended to generate prestige for the Supreme Leader’s supporters and allies in the media.
This article three-part article examines Khamenei’s population and demographics project from three different angles. In this first section, we discuss how a fringe concern became a national issue on the insistence of one person, Khamenei, and how all political institutions and media in the Islamic Republic are being forced to support it.
In the second section, we examine how Iran’s population “crisis” has been weaponized for political gain through incorrect information, exaggeration and magnification, and the manipulation of official population data and statistics. We dedicate the final part of the study to showing why population growth in Iran is already a failed project.
Part I: Personal Belief or Imposing an Opinion?
In a report published on July 12, 2020, the IRGC-controlled Tasnim news agency noted Ayatollah Khamenei’s repeated assertion that Iran’s population needs to grow. The Supreme Leader has apparently said that Iranians should be having more children at least 42 times in the last 10 years. If correct, this would be a record among contemporary world leaders.
The figure is probably based on the number of results listed on Ayatollah Khamenei's official website under the search terms "population growth." But the total number of times Khamenei has expressed the broader sentiment is much higher. In his Norooz (Iranian new year) video messages to student organizations, at meetings with parliamentarians and in practically every televised appearance he makes, Khamenei takes the opportunity to wax lyrical about the “ageing population”.
For the Supreme Leader, Iran's demographic trends are crucial. It is not clear exactly how he assesses the current situation or what his vision is for the future. Nor is it clear who has reported what to him, or what has he seen, that since 2011 has compelled such an all-consuming fear of declining population in Iran: one that has become his abiding social and political concern.
The history of Ayatollah Khamenei's demographics preoccupation goes back a little earlier than this. In 2010, he opined: "If we had twice the population of today, we could still manage ourselves in the best way without the slightest need for other countries."
But it was after 2011 that Khamenei’s pronouncements on this matter took on a more urgent tone. In a speech on August 7, 2011, Khamenei imposed a new goal on the people of Iran: "The population of the country is 75 million. I believe that our country, with the capabilities that we have, can have a population of 150 million people. I believe in a large population. Any action that slows or stops population growth should only be done after we reach 150 million people.”
Khamenei has since repeated 150 million figure nine times. On other occasions, he has raised his demand to 200 million.
On May 20, 2014, Ayatollah Khamenei announced a new overall population policy in conjunction with a 14-step plan. The first step, and the sum total of the policy, is to “increase fertility rates”.
Khamanei states that "God Almighty has asked Muslims to increase [their number].” This quote, in context, is not a personal opinion. The concerns of the Supreme Leader become the public concern of his entourage and supporters – and as such the Iranian political apparatus, as these people have since taken over almost all of Iran’s state institutions.
Now, a contest is taking place among the "revolutionary" faction of MPs in the current Iranian parliament to establish which one of them is most in line with the "Leader's intentions” with regard to population growth. Almost every day, one of these MPs raises the issue in the legislature. A Special Population Committee has been formed and vast swathes of the Parliamentary Research Center’s time is spent on research, and drafting plans and bills, in aid of financial and legal support to advance population growth. The entire project has its legal, administrative, and financial basis in one person's imagination: namely, that of Ayatollah Khamenei.
Increasing Iran’s population has now been given a legal, administrative, and financial underpinning and has a special clause in the annual budget. This year alone, at a time when Iran faces the biggest financial and economic crisis in contemporary history, 218 billion tomans (US$11m) have been allocated to implementing population policies. The figure is equivalent to the average wage of 6,000 Iranian workers who, according to official publications, now cannot afford sufficient food or basic necessities.
This comes in addition to the specific budget allocated for cultural and propaganda activities to promote population growth. Meanwhile, on October 22, 2011, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution turned population incentive policies into a formal decree that imposed a financial burden on the government.
But critics believe that, so far, in practice the government has avoided financing population growth programs. In Iran’s Sixth Development Plan, Article 102 addresses this issue in detail and sets further specific goals for population growth. It states: "The government is obliged to take the following measures in accordance with the general policies … approved by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, with the cooperation of relevant institutions, by establishing mechanisms and providing the necessary funds in the annual budget.”
The document goes on to detail the policies, which are as follows:
- Create the appropriate conditions to control and reduce the average age of marriage by 10 percent;
- Support, assist, and promote the livelihoods and economic conditions of families;
- Actively engage in the arena of “family values” and prohibit publishing programs that damage these values; create education, research, and propaganda programs through all relevant agencies in order to strengthen family values;
- Laying the groundwork to increase the fertility rate to at least 2.5 children per household;
- Support the promotion of successful, stable, and easy marriages, childbearing, and the raising of “righteous” children;
- Provide the facilities and resources for the building and renting of homes, with priority for couples with children, in the annual budget;
- Include provisions to “increase the health of marriages” and provide infertility treatments in the annual budget;
- Encouraging reconciliation between estranged spouses in family litigation cases.
- Support and develop health insurance for mothers in all stages of pregnancy until the end of infancy.
Plenty of the provisions of Article 102 are necessities for a well-run society, such as supporting livelihoods and developing the health system. But is it necessary for a crisis-stricken country like Iran to determine and pass a legal clause to reduce the legal age of marriage, or to increase the fertility rate and to allocate a budget for it? Is the population crisis as serious as Ayatollah Khamenei and his supporters imagine it to be?
Part II: Theorizing with Inaccurate and Exaggerated Information
Ayatollah Khamenei has described the current, 11th Iranian parliament as "one of the strongest and most revolutionary of the revolution era." It has been in session for just shy of two months, but in this short period of time, it has dramatically shifted the parameters of "devotion" to the leader of the Islamic Republic.
So far, 145 members of the Majles have Twitter accounts. Since the inauguration of the 11th parliament, not a single day has gone by without MPs using the social media site to publish pictures and quotes of the Supreme Leader while lavishing praise on him.
Earlier in this report, we discussed how the personal views and opinions of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran become an organized political and administrative issue. In accordance with Ayatollah Khamenei’s words, a law is written; a budget is set; formal and informal critics are denied the opportunity for scrutiny.
By repeating the Supreme Leader’s views, his “revolutionary” supporters automatically strengthen their political position. What their personal opinion is, or whether the views they parrot are well-informed, does not matter. Nor does it matter whether a given issue – such as that of population growth – is actually a priority in the constituencies they represent.
The formation of a Special Population Committee topped the list of tasks that members of the 11th Iranian parliament, in the first 50 days as sitting MPs, were obliged to carry out. In order to keep up appearances, they along with the state-controlled media are also forced to theorize about this matter in public, which in turns entrenches the notion that population really is a critical issue for Iran – which it is not.
In what follows and in the next section, we attempt to explain why. Despite drastic change in the demographic pattern over the years, the situation in Iran is hardly a concern compared to those of other countries, especially in the face of much more serious social, economic, and political challenges and crises.
Meanwhile, the market for fabricated news stories, manipulated statistics and misleading statements is booming. In general terms, there are three categories of misinformation propagated about population in the Islamic Republic:
- Provably Inaccurate News and Information
False information and misleading statements propagated in Iran seek to present the birth rate in the country as critically low. By means of a recent example, three claims by sitting Iranian MPs were recently examined by the verification website Fact-Nameh and found to be categorically untrue.
Abolfazl Abutorabi, a representative for Ilam province, tweeted:, "Today, the jihad of believers, scholars and most especially the clergy, is childbearing. According to statistics, by 2050, Iran will be one of the three top countries with the most aged population in the world." In fact, Fact-Nameh calculates that if the fertility rate remains the same as today - or even decreases slightly – for the next 30 years, people aged over 65 in Iran will account for about 20 percent of the total population: a lower projection than some 82 other countries worldwide.
The first deputy speaker of parliament, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, who has also a physician whose words carry weight and nuance, has also remarked: "Today, reliable news and reports say that our population is rapidly aging. This is grave, terrible news. Its effects will emerge when there is no cure. In 30 years’ time, 30 percent of Iran's population will be aged over 60."
Hashemi altered the definition of “elderly” to distort and amplify the projected size of a future “aged” population. According to both domestic and international standards, the criterion for defining old age is 65 years or over. Credible estimates put Iran’s elderly population at between 17 and 20 percent in 30 years’ time: a sizeable difference to the figure posted by this prominent Iranian politician.
Fatemeh Mohammadbeigi, an MP for Qazvin, has made the baseless and vulgar claim that Iranians’ IQ was declining because elites were refusing to have children. Previously, she claimed, “Iranians had an IQ of 104 and Iran was among the top four or five highest-IQ countries in the world. We now rank 68th in the world; I think at the moment the average IQ of Iranians is around 84."
The only figure in Mohammadbeigi’s claim that can accurately be verified is the current average IQ of Iran, which funnily enough is incorrect. More broadly, linking childbearing to a country’s average IQ is a singular approach. Concerns about the emigration of elites from Iran, which might have a real bearing on average IQ in the country, abound – but speculation about their fertility and its effect on the intelligence of others is quite a step to take.
2. Stories With a Basis in Reality, but Misleading Conclusions
A few short weeks ago, a story broke on social media that attracted a flurry of attention. Several Twitter users, including the recently-deposed Health Ministry spokeswoman Kianoosh Jahanpour, re-posted an old tweet from Melinda Gates, wife of the American billionaire Bill Gates, that read, "The fastest declining fertility rate in world history has happened in Iran."
It is certainly true that the fertility rate decreased rapidly in Iran over a ten-year period in the 1980s. But since then, the curve has flattened, and the decline was a welcome reversal of an untenable situation brought about by population growth drives in the early years following the Islamic Revolution, and again during the Iran-Iraq war.
According to UN statistics, the birth rate per woman Iran was 6.02 in 1986. But by 1995, amid the devastation brought about by war and the encouragement of family planning initiatives under President Rafsanjani, this had dropped to 2.94: the fastest decline in a 10-year period of any country in the world, save for the Maldives between 1990 and 1999.
This drop in the birth rate in Iran mirrors what happened in other countries in the modern world over a 20-year period. Due to political contingencies, it simply happened in a shorter time-frame. As such, the figure is only useful in the potential pursuit of a Guinness World Record, and there is no reason it should compel a fresh drive towards population growth today.
3. Lack of Nuance Leading to False Impressions
Iran is often described as a large country with a low population density: an idea that can easily be co-opted to promote the domestic population growth program. And it is true that Iran is the 18th largest country in the world, with an area of more than 1,648,000 square kilometers: more than the area of Germany, Japan, France, Britain and South Korea put together.
But a large part of Iran's geography is made up of uninhabitable deserts and mountainous areas. It is estimated that only about 10 percent of Iran's territory is actually habitable, while close to 100 percent of some other countries are arable and fit for human habitation.
For this reason, Iran’s real population density should be calculated based on a mere 200,000 square kilometers. From this standpoint, Iran happens to be a country with a relatively high population density and limited capacity. As it stands, the country barely has room in places for the 80 million souls it sustains. Pouring an additional 70 to 120 million people into the habitable territories could lead to nothing short of demographic and environmental disaster.
Part III: Why Won’t Iranian Society Accept Population Growth Initiatives?
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s propaganda operations have been heavily invested in the population growth project. It is not clear where and on what basis this became embedded in Ayatollah Khamenei’s mind, from which policies are written, finances are allocated, and ideals and stipulations travel downstream. They have now traveled so far that measures such as banning the import of condoms, banning vasectomy, banning contraceptive advertising, and banning the distribution of contraceptives in health centers are on the agenda in Iran.
But will these measures actually lead to increased fertility? It is not clear how the Islamic Republic actually intends to increase the birth rate, but it is likely that these measures will not succeed by themselves.
The population of Iran does not want to increase the population, for the simple reason that it has spent more than half a century in unstable political and economic conditions. In unstable situations, more children means more instability. More population means less per capita income for families, fewer amenities and less food.
Up until 50 years ago, childbearing was an investment in the future. A child increased a household’s overheads to some extent, but a decade or two later would come to play a productive role in their families before starting their own. At that time, most of Iran's population still lived in rural areas and family businesses were the predominant way of doing business in Iran.
Now, however, the situation is different. More children is synonymous with more expenses in the short, medium and often long term. By law, children's economic activity is blocked until the age of 15. After that, in the middle classes, children generally remain in the family home for longer and the cost of food and education is borne by the family until they enter the labor market and achieve financial independence. This process sometimes takes up to 30 years. When according to official statistics, the vast majority of Iranian society already lacks food security, it is natural that the result of an increased population would be more poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.
Of course, the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran thinks otherwise. Ayatollah Khamenei appears to still believe that the situation is the same as half a century ago. On October 28, 2013, he blithely said: “We only think about what will happen to a family if four or five children fall on their shoulders. But think about how these four or five children will grow up and find a job. With the job they do, think what they could do to help the country develop."
Contrary to what Ayatollah Khamenei imagines, the economy is limited both in the familial sphere and across Iran. The experience of the last 50 years has shown us that the growth of Iran's economy in terms of population is much slower than the global average, and much slower than in neighboring countries. Everywhere else in the world, except for a few crisis-stricken states including Iran, the rate of economic growth is faster than the rate of population growth: a reality that cannot be altered by slogans or persuasion.
The fact that only around 10 per cent of Iran is actually habitable has already been discussed, and on the ground, this too is highly likely to dissuade some families from having more children than they intend to. In every major Iranian city, it is enough to look out of one’s window and appraise whether one’s alley could accommodate one and a half to twice the current inhabitants to see the problem. In already cramped and unaffordable cities, how and where is this additional population to be housed?
A young couple without children can live a relatively good life in a one-bedroom apartment. With the birth of a first child, either the child or the parents have to forget about a private bedroom, and family members already have to stand in a queue to get to the bathroom. With the birth of a second child, or a third, there is even less room. If the family can afford a bigger house with more bedrooms and toilets, things will get a little better, but what if they cannot? The situation at the macro level in Iran is just: that that of a family that does not, and will never, have recourse to a more spacious home. As the population grows, everyone is forced to live cheek by jowl. Over the next three decades, even without Khamenei’s attempted engineering, another 15 to 20 million people will likely be added to this dense and crowded room.
Iran's population “pyramid” – the distribution of age groups in the population – is one of the most uneven in the world, with the number of people in their 30s far outstripping that of young adults, children and teenagers, due to people from the late 1980s onward having fewer children. The “bulge in the middle” is due to a grave mistake made in the early years after the Islamic Revolution to stop family planning services, and their partial resumption more than a decade later.
It is true that Iran's elderly population will increase significantly in the next 30 years. The Supreme Leader and his proponents believe this problem will be solved by forcing another large population wave. If this happens, it will make Iran's demographic distribution even more uneven than it already is.
But will it happen? Definitely not. The true meaning of an uneven population pyramid, something drawn on paper and at a distance, is in reality a crisis-ridden society struggling with internal issues and upheaval: problems that will persist in Iran in the coming years.
People born in the 1980s know in their very flesh and bones the problem of over-population. They understand the consequences of the Islamic Republic halting birth control programs and encouraging growth, because they have lived it. This generation – the very same that is now of childbearing age – is likely to have a naturally negative view on Khamenei’s flagship policy, and due to personal experience is unlikely to pander to it.