Iran's dream of being an Islamic powerhouse is threatened by baby drought

Iran’s new “Law on Family and Youth Support” is a clear example of how different perspectives colour news coverage.

Iran’s theocratic, authoritarian and anti-Israel regime has few friends internationally. So global headlines reflect a dim view of the new legislation, which severely restricts access to abortion, contraception, and voluntary sterilization. “The Iranian Government is taking further steps to use criminal law to restrict the rights of women, for the sake of increasing the number of births, which will effectively force many women and girls to continue unwanted pregnancies to term which would be inherently discriminatory”, United Nations experts declared.

A headline on the Kurdish website RUDAW said that it was a “clear contravention of international law”; in The Times of Israel, it was “UN experts warn it will limit women’s rights”; in Radio Free Europe (an American government website), it was“’It’s My Decision’: Iran’s New Population Law Blasted For Restricting Access To Contraceptives, Abortions”.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, the dramatic initiatives made by the Iranian government have gone largely unreported. But everyone needs to know about them because they may be the harbinger of public policy wherever the demographic winter is settling in – which is everywhere, bar sub-Saharan Africa.

Official Iranian media set out the underlying reason for their government’s decision: an alarming slide in the birthrate. In fact, The Teheran Times did not even mention abortion.

The Iranian government is clearly spooked by a 550,000 fall in the number of annual births between 2016 and 2021.

The demographic implosion began after the Iran-Iraq War, in the 1990s. The government encouraged small families because experts warned of a population explosion. It succeeded all too well. It experienced “the largest and fastest fall in fertility ever recorded” according to population experts. Nowadays Iran’s fertility rate is 1.6 children per woman; in 1986 it was 6.5. It has one of the fastest rates of ageing in the world.

This is ominous news for the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a Shia island in a sea of hostile Sunni regimes. It aspires to be a military superpower with nuclear weapons – and for that it needs armies of young men. It is an authoritarian regime whose legitimacy depends in part upon prosperity – and the economic burden of caring for the elderly endangers that.

Many other countries face the same problem, from the behemoth, China, to minnows like Singapore. Birth rates are far below replacement levels and a crunch time is approaching when the number of able-bodied workers will fall and the number of dependent elderly will rise. Many of them are offering carrots. China has reversed its one-child policy; Singapore is offering pandemic baby bonuses.

But Iran may be the first major nation to use both the carrot of pro-natalist policies and the stick of curbs on abortions and birth control backed by a government propaganda campaign. Here are some of the measures in the new legislation:

  • health insurance for infertile couples
  • increasing the number of fertility clinics
  • services for working women
  • health and nutrition support packages
  • educational opportunities for student mothers
  • livelihood support for families
  • medical services for pregnant women
  • discounts for families with three or more children
  • promotions for employees with three to five children
  • 9 months’ maternity leave on full pay
  • free infertility treatment
  • special housing loans for young couples to encourage young people to get married
  • a 20% discount for tutoring for school children
  • free quality natural childbirth in state-run hospitals

And the Iranian media will be expected to support the drive for more babies.

  • all government agencies are expected to promote the “positive and valuable aspects of marriage
  • advertisements should feature families with 3 or more children
  • a “National Population Youth Award” for institutions which help to raise the birth rate
  • government media outlets must promote child-bearing and denounce celibacy, contraception and abortion. Ten percent of programming must be devoted to promoting an increase in the population.

Mohammad Esmaeil Akbari, a senior advisor to the minister of health, told The Teheran Times recently that: “Currently, the elderly constitutes less than 10% of the population and we are considered a young country, but we are getting older every year so that in another 20 years, we will be one of the oldest countries in the world and the oldest in 30 years.”

Like China, another authoritarian regime which wants to turn around its below-replacement level fertility, Iran will probably find that it is easy to enact pro-natalist policies but excruciating difficult to get women to bear children. Small families have become the norm in both countries. Women are better educated and marrying later.

Having children may no longer be regarded as a fulfilling life project even in a country famed for its embrace of Islam. If that is the case, directives from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not work.


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