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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Demographics of Iran Tell Important Stories

The general view among politicians and media commentators in the U.S. is generally favorable toward Iraq and negative toward Iran. The U.S. is perceived as having saved Iraq from Saddam Hussein (with the positive outcome of that now in peril), while at the same time holding Iran at bay. But, a look at the demographics of the two countries suggests a much greater affinity between the U.S. and Iran than between the U.S. and Iraq. At the time of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 the average woman there there was giving birth to 5 children each, compared to fewer than 2 in Iran at the time. Female literacy was also much lower in Iraq than in Iran. The fact that both countries are majority Shia Muslim was clearly not the critical demographic factor. 

I was reminded of this by a note today from Yaghoob (Yaqub) Foroutan at Mazandaran University in Iran, whom I first met when he was teaching in New Zealand. He just published a paper on "Social Change and Demographic Response in Iran (1956–2006)" in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. No matter what the rest of the world may think about the government of Iran, the people have undergone a genuinely remarkable demographic transition that has been pushed along by government programs that have helped to dramatically lower the birth rate, dramatically lower the infant death rate, and dramatically improve the educational levels of both women and men. The article describing these changes requires a subscription, so I will highlight what I think are the important bits.
Generally speaking, the significant fall in the birth rate of Iran accords with the social changes that have occurred in the country over recent years, including a substantial increase in the literacy rate and in educational attainment (particularly for women and in rural areas), the increase of urbanisation rate, the improvement of health facilities and a significant decrease in infant mortality rate. It seems that these social changes affected the traditional beliefs promoting early marriage and larger family size; they have gradually led to the emergence and establishment of new views and values associated with family formation resulting in a significant increase in the age of marriage and a substantial fall in birth rate. Furthermore, the results of recent studies have shown that most people are now looking for a small family, and two children is often the ideal number for the increasing number of parents who prefer to invest in the quality of their children (particularly their education) rather than in the quantity of children. In order to reach these goals, people generally now support birth control programmes and often disagree with traditional ideas such as ‘son preference’, leading to high fertility. Moreover, these new views and values affecting family formation tend to be spreading rapidly, resulting in greater freedom from traditional religious values.
Iran has been always a predominantly Muslim country, and has officially been an Islamic Republic since the 1979 Revolution, but it has experienced significant socio- economic changes in recent years, creating a new cultural context. It would seem that changes in family formation characteristics and birth rate are better explained by these changes in socio-cultural context than by the religion of Islam per se.
Can Iraq go down that same road to socioeconomic development and demographic stability? I  ask the question partly because of the odd historical situation in which the CIA initiated a regime change in Iran in 1953 that kept the Shah's secular government in power and, by the CIA's own admission, helped to spawn terror in the Middle East. Ultimately, though, an Islamic-oriented government in Iran helped to generate a demographic revolution. A half century later the U.S. effected regime change in Iraq by toppling the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. Where this is headed is obviously up for grabs at the moment, but we have to hope for the best.

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