Iran: A Seemingly Unlikely Setting for World’s Fastest Demographic Transition

This is the second post in a series profiling the process of building political commitment in countries whose governments have made strong investments in family planning. Read the first post, on Rwanda’s recent rapid demographic changes, here.

To date, only 11 countries outside of the developed world, China, and a handful of small island states have reached the end of the demographic transition, with fertility rates declining from more than four children per woman to replacement level or lower.* Of these, only two countries have completed the transition in 15 years or less – and both might surprise you. One is Cuba, whose government dispensed family planning services to its relatively small population in the 1970s through accessible primary health care facilities and legalized safe abortion eight years before the United States did. The other: Iran.

Following the 1979 revolution, Iran’s new theocracy adopted a socially conservative, pro-natalist outlook. Half of the population lived in rural areas, which typically constrains access to health services. In addition, abortion was illegal in most circumstances. According to the UN, Iranian women had an average of 6.5 children each in the early 1980s and the population was growing nearly four percent annually, a rate high enough for it to double in 19 years.

But, by the early 2000s, Iran’s fertility rate had dropped below two children per woman. The swift changes can be attributed to the efforts of government officials concerned about meeting the employment needs of a growing population, supported by public health experts who wanted to rebuild the eroded family planning program.

A Dramatic Policy Shift

The turning point came after the end of Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq in 1988. With military demands high – several hundred thousand people were killed during the war – population growth was viewed positively. But as the war ended, policy directives did an about-face.

Although public health officials had framed the need for reinvigorated family planning programs in health-related terms for years, the motivation for government officials to change policy appears to have been economic. The national budget agency informed the prime minister that after nearly a decade of conflict, the country lacked adequate funding to both rebuild and to meet the needs of its people. The prime minister responded quickly, directing that demographic factors be integrated into the new development plan and stating that “Iranians’ standard of living was being eroded by the growth of the country’s population.”

“Pragmatism Has Prevailed Over Pure Ideology”

After convincing their superiors, Iranian government officials who supported family planning faced the added challenge of garnering the backing of the influential religious establishment. Shortly after the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini officially sanctioned the use of contraception, though his perspective was not universal among clerics. Once the prime minister decided to introduce a national family planning program, officials sought support from additional religious authorities. Opposition was minimal after two key institutions offered endorsements. The High Judicial Council determined that there was “no Islamic barrier to family planning” in late 1988, and the Expediency Council approved the government’s plans soon after.

By late 1989, a new family planning program had been officially introduced. The program’s aims were to lengthen spacing between births; limit pregnancies in the early and late reproductive years; and lower fertility by educating the population and ensuring access to free and diverse contraceptive methods. By the mid-1990s, the government had fully integrated family planning into the existing primary health system.

Iran thus followed the example of other majority-Muslim countries where religion was not an impediment to family planning, including Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Oman. Just as in countries where highly Catholic populations have low fertility rates (Italy, Poland, Spain, and many others), religious guidance has been interpreted in varying ways in different settings and is not necessarily a central factor in individual fertility decisions. As Akbar Aghajanian and Amir H. Merhyar write in a summary of Iran’s family planning program, “Pragmatism has prevailed over pure ideology when necessary.”

The Contributions of Women’s Education and a Strong Health System

A new policy orientation was the critical first step, but successful implementation was necessary for Iran’s demographic trajectory to change in response. Fortunately, the government had some advantages in rolling out its new program, namely a strong existing health system, a history of past efforts to promote family planning, and an educated female population among whom demand for contraception was high.

Rural development became a priority of the government after the revolution and resulted in improved access to an array of services. In rural areas, community health workers receive two years of training to provide family planning services along with other preventative care and treatment. Services are also available at rural health “houses,” urban clinics, and higher-level centers around the country.

The status of women has also played a major role. A research exercise conducted by IIASA estimated that improvements in educational attainment among women were responsible for about one-third of Iran’s fertility decline between 1980 and 2005. Women’s literacy was already rising during the period of the revolution and reached 74 percent by 1996, while attitudes toward female employment became more supportive. By the late 1990s, new classes of university students included more women than men. The response to the 1989 program indicated that women clearly had an unmet demand for family planning. Use of modern contraception jumped from 31 percent in 1989 to 51 percent just five years later, then rose more slowly over the subsequent decade.

A Dividend Squandered?

The rapid changes in Iran’s age structure, thanks to declining fertility, have opened a window of opportunity for the country to boost economic growth through lower dependency ratios – a phenomenon called the demographic dividend. However, the dividend is not an automatic bonus, and Iran’s capacity to capitalize on its demographic change is questionable.

The unemployment rate among young people today is over 20 percent, indicating that the economy is not generating sufficient jobs, which is a prerequisite to improving productivity. This inopportune climate may even contribute to a further decline in the fertility rate: Some observers have suggested that the country’s economic troubles and rising costs of living have motivated young people to delay marriage and have smaller families. “Unemployment and high costs of living, coupled with social and political restrictions, have made [life] increasingly difficult for young Iranians,” Farzaneh Roudi of the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) explained in a blog post last year.

Given Iran’s challenges in producing adequate jobs and other economic benefits for its population, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent unusual pronouncements on population issues are especially puzzling. Last year, Ahmadinejad introduced a pro-natalist policy offering direct payments to each child born, continuing until they reach adulthood, and later suggested that girls should marry at age 16 or 17.

But despite a high level of international media attention, most observers expect the policy to have little impact. Widespread adoption of family planning has become entrenched in society: 60 percent of Iranian women now use a modern contraceptive method. As PRB’s Roudi wrote in response to Ahmadinejad’s proposal, “Iranian women and men have gotten used to exercising their reproductive rights and would expect to be able to continue to do so.”

*The 11 countries that have achieved replacement fertility or lower outside of developed regions, China, and small island states are Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Iran, Lebanon, Myanmar, Thailand, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a consultant on political demography for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and senior technical advisor at Futures Group.

Look for related analysis on the political implications of Iran’s changing age structure by Richard Cincotta on
New Security Beat soon.

Sources: Abbasi-Shavazi, Lutz, Hosseini-Chavoshi and Samir (2008), Abbasi-Shavazi (2002), Aghajanian and Merhyar (1999), Christian Science Monitor,, The New York Times, Noble and Potts (1996), Population Reference Bureau, Roudi-Fahimi (2002), UN Population Division, World Bank.

Image Credit: “بیست و پنجم خرداد ۸,” courtesy of flickr user Recovering Sick Soul (Nima Fatemi); charts arranged by Sean Peoples and Elizabeth Leahy Madsen.