The post-revolutionary Iranian government, more than the Chinese and the Indian governments, know how to control their population growth. At least until now.
When the Islamic Republic first took control of Iran from the Shah, the new regime decided population growth would be greatly in its advantage. After all, it was faced with a bloody war with neighboring Iraq -- one that would eventually kill a million people. So, it promoted population growth for its "soldiers for Islam." And the birthrate spiked well over 3 percent, one of the highest in the world.
In the late 80s, however, as the war with Iraq ended and the government realized the costs of the population would far exceed the nation's resources (education, housing, employment, and even food), the regime changed its tune. There was born one of the most comprehensive and successful population control systems of any nation. The Mullahs declared that Islam favored families of only two children and made contraception widely available. The government itself began manufacturing condoms and distributing them for next to nothing. By 2001, a condom factory in Iran produced more than 70 million condoms a year. Different colors and flavors. Many packaged with French and English writing to trick buyers into thinking they were foreign made and thereby increase their allure.
And if this were not enough, the Islamic Republic proclaimed that there was no shame in vasectomies and made the operation available, free of charge, to any male who desired it. The pièce de résistance, however, was when the government began allowing and even subsidizing gender reassignment surgery for Iran's transgendered men. The rationale? If they are not sleeping with women they cannot have children (with the added benefit that post-operation transgendered individuals could now be called "women" and were therefore no longer "homosexual" for desiring male sexual companionship). As of 2008, Iran had carried out more gender reassignment surgeries than any other nation in the world (except Thailand).
Of course, not every methodology used by the regime in its promotion of birth control constituted "liberal" ideology. The regime also withdrew food coupons, paid maternity leave, and social welfare subsidies after a family had their third child. Couples were required to take birth control classes before being permitted to marry. The government also continued its condemnation of premarital sex, which has had several adverse effects such as the over experience of non-vaginal sex. While these "side effects" were undesirable to the religious authority, did contribute to their efforts to curb population growth.
It worked. Much to the envy of overpopulated countries struggling to control their birthrates, Iran's birthrate plummeted to only 1.2 percent.
During Ahmadinejad's administration, however, the regime began to change course again. At first, the regime spoke of the right to have children as a human right that should be protected. Then it began a campaign of encouraging women to work less and devote more time to raising children. Birth control is becoming increasing expensive and difficult to find, vasectomies are no longer free, and sex education clinics which used to distribute condoms are now "family planning clinics" espousing the virtues of children and child-care. The new government line is "we don't accept less than five," as was stated by Ayatollah Mohammad Ghazvini on national television. "So tonight... start the operation of having five, eight, 12, and 14 children, which, God willing, will be a big slap in the face... of this nasty one-child culture."
But will it work? In a country suffering from severe economic conditions and limited resources which require all able bodies to head to the work force, and a country where 60 percent of the university graduates are women, how will these new policies be received? They threaten women's rights, to be sure. But they also risk remarkable poverty which might also push Iran's population to a new edge.
Shermin Kruse is the author of Butterfly Stitching
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