Suddenly, Iran's Regime Demands a Baby Boom

While many might anticipate employment challenges, even Iran’s experts overlook a more elemental issue: only last summer, more than 500 municipalities were faced with water shortages. Though accommodating tens of millions more people would be an environmental impossibility, the state’s resolve seems firm.

As with many other dictators, Ayatollah Khamenei's decisions are celebrated and praised by opportunists in the administration and the parliament. Many talk about the advantages of a bigger population and belittle efforts for population control. These programs are even described as a Western plot to restrict Muslim (in some rhetoric, specifically Shiite) world population. Though most officials who use this language are too sly to believe the party line, such cynical accommodation is a trend with precedent in the political culture of Iran and other totalitarian states.

Since vasectomy and tubal ligation have been eradicated from public health services along with the promotion of contraception and birth control, short-term consequences have been dramatic. Fatemeh Daneshvar, a member of the Tehran city council, has stated that the birth rate of homeless people has increased by a factor of 15 -- from a monthly rate of three to four cases to almost 60 births -- although she does not clarify the time period in which this growth took place.

Despite the government’s aggressive rhetoric, Iranian middle-class citizens are not interested in such demographic engineering. According to published statistics, this year’s rate of population growth (1.2 percent) is even lower than last year’s. Reasons for the decline are paralleled in other parts of the world: delayed marriage, urbanization, limited housing space in the big cities where the bulk of the population is concentrated, high cost of living, and the expectation that women contribute equally to the work force.

A comparative look at other totalitarian societies and some educated guessing (made necessary by the fact that demographic information is often hard to obtain in such countries) might suggest some precedent for these trends.

Mr. Khamenei is anxious to prove Iran’s regional hegemony, and from this view, demonstrating national dominance in population is much more important than the health of the economy. Given that the population trends in two other totalitarian societies, North Korea and Cuba, have similarly dwindled, the supreme leader finds it rational to encourage fertility. A more aggressive Iranian regional (if not global) strategy in the near term might prove emulation of the policies that North Korea adopted in the ‘80s (note that little data exists on the insular nation’s population trends) more rational than it first appears.

It is hard to deny that totalitarian states view population declines as matters of national security, since their state apparatuses are always in a semi-military state. In Iran, whether or not such policies will be efficacious is a question that must be left to the future. After all, it is the people in general who must buy these official political lines if they are to have any effect -- in Iran’s case, the very people who find wisdom in the old Persian saying: “The government treats people like artillery treats flesh.”