Monday, November 4, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Iran’s ‘Demographic Catastrophe’ May Have Some Positive Consequences

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 4 – Demography is destiny only over the longer term, but many countries are now facing demographic shifts that are likely to play an important role in their social, economic and political development. One of those where demographic shifts have been especially large over the last three decades is Iran.

            Fertility rates in Iran have fallen to 1.6 children per woman per life time, far less than the 2.2 figure needed for simple replacement; and as a result, that country’s population growth rate has slowed from 3.9 percent in the 1980s to 1.3 percent at present and will probably begin to decline in a decade or two (

            The Iranian government is worried, experts say, all the more so because the population of that country not only is no longer growing but, like the situation in many other countries around the world, is aging, something that not only will require more spending on hospitals but also deprive the regime of the energy of the more radical young.

            To compensate, the Iranian parliament is discussing a draft law to boost the fertility rate to 2.5 by 2025, but such pro-natalist policies are extremely expensive – and made more so by the economic sanctions regime the West has imposed on Iran over its nuclear program – and in any case seldom work as well as their authors hope.

            Indeed, Iran has failed with its pro-natalist policies in the past. In 2005, it adopted a law to promote earlier marriages and more births but nothing came of that because Tehran was unable to fund the program. One governor responded by threatening to fire from government service all bachelors, but that did not boost the birthrate either.

            Moreover, the latest proposed changes to Iranian law – increasing the number of months a young mother can take off from work from six months to nine months and offering fathers a ten day absence from work after the birth of a child – are not the kind of things that have boosted birthrates elsewhere by very much.

            Raz Zimmt, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Unionn Center for Iranian Studies, told Russia’s that he has grave doubts that the proposed steps will work.  Most Iranian families now want and have only two children, and they are unlikely to change their preferences or behavior in response to such offers.

            Another factor limiting the impact of such proposals is that the average age of marriage in Iran has increased by 30 percent since the 1980s, something that means that there are fewer prime childbearing years for women after contracting a marriage. Given social hostility to single parenthood, that further pushes down the fertility rate.

       does not mention it, but perhaps the most significant consequence of Iran’s demographic “catastrophe” will be a positive one: A country with fewer young men and especially unemployed young men and with more elderly ones almost certainly will be less supportive of radicalism than it has been.

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