Suddenly, Iran's Regime Demands a Baby Boom

One of the defining characteristics of the modern nation-state is a concern with population. The relationship between the state and the size of the country’s populace is even more crucial in the case of totalitarian societies, where even the most private and personal of affairs may redound on national security.

The study of population policies, biopolitics, and the role of state interference in the private sphere constitutes a useful tool for more accurately understanding and predicting socio-political behaviors in a given society. Childbirth and rearing are not strictly private matters; the state and its policies play a significant role in their overall trends. The decision to procreate is dependent not only on the will of the biological parents but also on other factors, including state policies such as constant advertising for procreation, political and economic incentives, and child-care subsidies.

In the early 1980s, as the Iran-Iraq war raged, Iran's population growth rate was at about four percent. At this rate, the country's population was set to double in around 17 years. Islamic Revolution rhetoric influenced by the Iran-Iraq war, combined with state-sponsored incentives to have more children, made Iranian society receptive to new population policies promoted by politicians to boost the growth rate to between three and four percent. Iran, which had started implementing plans to decrease population growth in the late 1960s, was now facing rapid growth pace with long-lasting consequences.

As the revolution changed many aspects of Iranian life, population growth was at its peak just a few years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian “baby boomers” were born in the midst of the war. For a tangible comparison with U.S. trends, let us not forget the average population growth rate between 1946 and 1964 -- the classic American baby boomer generation -- was less than 1.7%.

The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, and only weeks later the Ministry of Health took steps to consult clergy on the matter of contraception.

Gradually, attitudes toward population growth changed as politicians realized that the growth rate would need to be slowed if Iran were to be consistently prosperous in the long run. Government policies were changed accordingly, and in less than a decade Iran's population growth decreased by 70% to an overall 1.2 percent.

Although the growth rate fluctuated between 1.2 and 1.8 percent over the next decade, technocrats considered higher population growth undesirable, and they aligned public policies towards this more modest, reasonable target. Affordable, and in many cases free, contraception was available. Iran was even lauded by the United Nations for its population policies.

In 2012, once Iran’s population growth had stabilized, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei changed his mind and publicly declared a war on the country's population-control policies.

Not long after, officials in the Mahmood Ahmadinejad administration announced that population control programs were a thing of the past. In May 2014, Khamenei declared that it was wrong for the government to have previously enacted policies aimed at slowing population growth. He admitted that he was partially responsible for these “ill-conceived policies,” and declared that they should be changed immediately to compensate for almost two decades of “wrongdoing.”

This likely represented the sole instance of Khamenei admitting wrongdoing in matters of policy, and people familiar with the discourse of the ruling class thus recognized it as a significant development.

If this abrupt radical change is not to be attributed solely to the mood swings of the supreme leader, what reasonable governmental goal accounts for a policy change that would nearly double the country’s population from 80 to 150 million people?