Iran went through a baby boom in the 1980s. This was in the aftermath of the revolution in 1979 and while the country was in the midst of a war that would leave at least a third of a million of its people dead. Families were encouraged to strengthen Iran by producing “soldiers for Islam” and they did so in large numbers. During the 1980s the total fertility rate (the number of children the average Iranian woman had) was between five and seven.

Then the country’s rulers backtracked. Suddenly, having many children was seen as a strain on resources and as leading to high unemployment. The official slogans changed to “Two children is enough” and “Fewer kids, better life”. Vasectomies were subsidised, condoms were handed out for free, other contraceptives were made cheaper, and there was an emphasis on sex education and family planning. These policies were successful: they drastically reduced fertility to below the replacement rate (2.1 children per woman) by 2011.  

Today the fertility rate in Iran is 1.7 and the the average Iranian woman has her first child at the age of 29 (in the US it is 26). The poor economic outlook has led many young people to delay getting married and having a family and birth rates have continued to fall. This means that the country is rapidly ageing.  On current trends, by 2050 over a third of the country will be over the age of 60.

So now the propaganda has to change again. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is exhorting Iranians to have more children, for at least a decade. In 2013 a number of reforms, including extending maternity leave and giving fathers two weeks off upon the birth of a child, were introduced. Access to family planning services were limited, the number of infertility clinics was increased and the official advice was that it was safe to have children every 18 to 24 months (rather than the earlier advice of three to five years).

The birth rate is again being raised as a national security issue and foreign enemies have been blamed for engineering the decline. Khamenei has argued that the falling birth rate is due to imported western thinking and has said that the country of 80 million should aspire to a population nearly twice that size.

To this end, according to the Guardian, Iran’s state hospitals and clinics are no longer performing vasectomies or giving out contraceptives . Family planning procedures and products would still be available from pharmacies and private hospitals and also in public hospitals when the woman’s life is at risk.

The policy changes will probably have some effect on the TFR, but I wonder if they will be the silver bullet to halt and even reverse the sliding Iranian fertility rate. I think that the economic and societal changes that have reduced the fertility rate in Iran and around much of the world are probably too ingrained for Iran to see a dramatic turnaround. Like so many other countries, Iran is facing drastic population ageing in the decades ahead.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...