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Is Ahmadinejad Instigating a Demographic Catastrophe?

Posted: 07/31/10 02:58 AM ET

To anyone who is familiar with Iran's demographic troubles, the irony of President Ahmadinejad's desire to increase the country's population is not lost. On a number of occasions he has expressed his contempt for the idea that "two children are enough" and his confidence in Iran's ability to support up to 150 million people (the current population is 70 million). As part of a larger effort to encourage population growth, Ahmadinejad recently announced that the government will pay families for every new baby that is born. Money will be deposited into a bank account the child can access when he/she turns 20. The sum will include a one time deposit of $950 and subsequent yearly deposits of $95 until the child turns 18.

Ahmadinejad's program is reminiscent of the pronatalist policy Ayatollah Khomeini pursued following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. With the onset of the Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini called upon the Iranian people to produce more "soldiers of Islam" to create "an army of 20 million." Like Ahmadinejad, Khomeini considered family planning to be a secular concept imported from the West. The post-revolutionary government abolished the family planning initiatives that had been established by the previous regime and encouraged population growth by providing subsidies for large families. Not surprisingly, the country's population nearly doubled in less than 25 years.[1]

The census of 1986 served as a wake up to policy makers who recognized that population growth was straining the economy. Demonstrating that even in the Islamic Republic of Iran practical considerations trump religious ideology, the government reversed its policy and implemented one of the most successful national family planning campaigns in history. The birth rate dropped from 6.8 children per woman in the mid-1980s to 2.1 in 2000.[2]

As the baby boom generation comes of age, the government must now contend with the demographic fallout from its previous policy: an overburdened educational system, soaring unemployment rates and an escalating marriage crisis. Seventy percent of Iran's current population is under the age of thirty. Increasingly, young Iranians are attaining higher levels of education but finding that they are unable to secure a job, and thus lack the economic means to marry, start a family, and complete the natural transition to adulthood.

The stifled potential of the country's youth is one of the most tragic realities of modern Iran. During my visits to Iran, I have met countless young people--university diplomas in hand--who are frustrated by their inability to find suitable employment and start an independent life. The brightest and most talented join the massive brain drain leaving the country every year, while the less fortunate remain unemployed or working at a job far below their qualifications. The government is struggling to appease this cohort--aware that an educated and discontented youth population has created a politically volatile situation.

Why then, has Ahmadinejad chosen to pursue a policy that counteracts two decades of effort to curb the country's population growth? Perhaps he believes there is strength in numbers and that a large population will bolster Iran's position as a regional power. From an ideological perspective, the government may be displeased with the changing gender norms that have accompanied the declining fertility rate. Iranian women have become less homebound and more free to pursue education and work outside the home. Furthermore, the new program particularly appeals to lower income families, who constitute Ahmadinejad's primary support base and are the main beneficiaries of his populist policies. While the government's precise motivations in this regard remain uncertain, it is clear this policy will only hinder Iran's long-term development.

Rather than exacerbate Iran's demographic crisis, Iranian policymakers would do better to invest in Iran's youth. By expanding social and economic opportunities for this cohort, Iran's 'youth bulge' can be translated into a 'demographic dividend'. In other words, by taking advantage of the potential productivity of its large working age population, Iran can spur economic growth and build a foundation for long-term prosperity. However, this is contingent upon the implementation of effective policies that allow young people to realize their full economic and social potential.

[1] Vakil, Sanam. (2004). "Iran: The Gridlock between Demography and Democracy." SAIS Review 24.2, pp. 45-53

[2] Abbasi-Shavazi, M.J. (2002). "Recent changes and the future of fertility in Iran", Completing the Fertility Transition, United Nations, Population Division, New York, pp. 425-439.
http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/completingfertility/2RevisedABBASIpaper.PDF