by Baqer Moin

65 years and over: 5.1%

Life expectancy at birth: 70.3 years

Population in 2050: 94.41m

Iran's attitude to population control has see-sawed over the past fifty years as strategic and political imperatives have changed.

After the 1979 revolution, with the population standing at only 36 million, the new clerical leadership abandoned the Shah's family planning regime.

For Ayatollah Khomeini, population was a strategic asset at a time when Iran was suffering high casualties in its war with Iraq. He called for a 20 million volunteer army and a population of 200 million. Incentives were offered for families to produce more children.

In 1988, with the war over, the Tehran government felt that the economy could not cope with a fast-rising population. Birth control was reintroduced, including the options of sterilization and vasectomy, and newlyweds and students received mandatory family planning classes. The virtues of two-child families were proclaimed on posters and preachers in mosques backed the policy. In 2000, the Health Minister received the UN population control award.

At the same time, women were given more opportunities for higher education and employment. Economic independence offered women the freedom to choose whom they married, where they lived and how many children they would have.

But for the conservatives, smaller families were seen as giving in to the western values of secularism and individualism.

In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for an end to birth control, saying Iran needed its population to rise to 120 million people. A falling birth rate meant fewer conscripts for the armed forces, and in 2012 military service was extended from 18 to 21 months. A shortage of soldiers was seen as a national security matter. And so was any fall in the proportion of Persian speakers and Shia Muslims -- considered the cornerstone of Iran's national identity -- to the ethnic or linguistic groups, such as the Azeris, Kurds, Turkmen, Baluch and Arabs. In October last year, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for the birth-control programme to be scrapped.

He said officials, including himself, were to blame for giving Iran an ageing population and an unproductive society. 'May God and history forgive us,' he said.

Financial incentives and housing concessions have now been reinstated for large families. Pregnant state employees are offered nine months' paid leave. University courses on family planning have been dropped and the budgets of birth-control clinics cut. The aim is to more than double Iran's population from 77 million to 150 million.

At the same time reformist critics argue that it is not the quantity of population that is of strategic importance to Iran, but the need to enhance the quality of its citizens by equipping them with knowledge and technology to create wealth, have access to welfare and feel secure.

Baqer Moin is the author of 'Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah'


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