World

Drop in birth rate troubles Iran leaders

An Iranian nurse handled a newborn in Tehran. Iranian officials are offering incentives to couples who have children.
Morteza Nikoubazl/New York Times
An Iranian nurse handled a newborn in Tehran. Iranian officials are offering incentives to couples who have children.

TEHRAN — In their early 30s, married, and with prospects for successful careers, Bita and Sherag could be contemplating the logical next step in their lives: becoming parents.

But for them and an increasing number of young, middle-class Iranians who are deeply pessimistic over their country’s future, raising a child is one of the last things on their minds.

Bita, who like her husband asked for her family name to be withheld so they could speak freely, said she had had two abortions, which are illegal in Iran. “We are really serious about not having kids,” she said.

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Iran’s leaders have taken notice. Worried about a steep decline in births that experts are predicting could reduce population growth to zero within 20 years, Tehran has started a broad initiative to persuade families to have more children.

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Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sounded the alarm in a speech last winter, saying he was “shaking with fear” over the “dangerous issue” of population decline and warning officials to begin grappling with it now.

“After a few years, when the current young generation becomes old,” he said, “there will be no cure for that.”

Khamenei followed that up with a 14-point program, announced late last month, that health officials hope will lead to a doubling of Iran’s population, to 150 million, by 2050.

Hospital delivery stays are now free, and women get longer maternity leaves. Reversing policies to control population growth, the government has canceled subsidies for condoms and birth control pills, and eliminated free vasectomies.

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Billboards in the capital show a laughing father with five children riding a single tandem bicycle up a hill, leaving far behind an unhappy looking father with only one child. Those parents who have five children are now eligible for a $1,500 bonus, not that many here are likely to be tempted.

“When I see those, I wonder, how can that father even smile?” said Hadi Najafi, 25, an unemployed professional soccer player. He said he did not have the money to marry.

“Anybody with a lot of children is either very rich or very irresponsible,” Najafi said. “There is no other way.”

The demographic problem has also become entwined with Iran’s long-running conflict with the West over its nuclear program. One of the leading sources of Iran’s economic troubles is the series of harsh Western economic sanctions imposed in recent years to punish Tehran for its suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon and to bring it to the negotiating table.

Iran’s population policies have always been erratic. Though the population has doubled since 1979, most of the increase came in the years after the 1979 revolution, when sheer joy and hopes for a better future prompted many to have large families.

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The government also pushed procreation as a patriotic gesture during the bloody Iran-Iraq war, which ended in 1988 at a cost of at least 300,000 Iranian lives.

‘Anybody with a lot of children is either very rich or very irresponsible.’

At its peak, in the years after the 1979 revolution, Iran’s birthrate was 3.6 children per couple, according to the Statistical Organization of Iran and experts, far above the replacement level of 2.1.

Fearing that the country’s economy would not be able to provide jobs for the growing number of young people — a situation with potentially explosive political repercussions — Iran’s more moderate clerics introduced a “fewer kids, better lives” campaign to bring down the birthrate. But the number of children per couple has now dwindled to 1.3, more typical of a developed, high-income country like Germany, which is spending heavily to increase its fertility rate, now 1.4.

Paradoxically, Iran has never had more people of reproductive age. A little less than 70 percent of the population of 77 million is younger than 35, with most of them living in or near cities and increasingly embracing urban culture.

Some women and human rights activists suspect that the drive for more children is also aimed at keeping them at home.

“It will make them more financially dependent on their husbands and the political system and prioritize the family’s well-being over women’s health and education, and will make women’s mobilization much more difficult,” said Azadeh Kharazi, a sociologist.