This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Iran's eye-popping demographics

I was recently alerted to a story published more than four years about the "biggest population boom in history." Now, I have to tell you ahead of time that I haven't confirmed that Iran's population boom right after its revolution in the late 1970s was the "biggest" ever, but the UN Population Division data do show that it was large. Of special importance is how the boom was dramatically reversed. But first the origins of the boom:
Before its Islamic Revolution, Iran had begun a family-planning program, following a 1966 census that showed a startling increase over the previous decade. In 1956, Iran had 18.9 million people, but Iranian women were averaging 7.7 children apiece [UN data show a slightly lower--but still high--number]. In only ten years, they added 6 million more. The health ministry began distributing birth control, but with only modest success: the 1976 census still showed fertility rates of 6.3 children per woman. The top-down program was training medical personnel, but failing to explain to parents why they might want to limit the size of their families.
But shortly after the revolution, Saddam Hussein took control of the government of Iraq and immediately started a war with Iran--one that would last eight years.
The Population and Family Planning office closed. In its place was a campaign for every fertile Iranian woman to help build Iran a “Twenty Million Man Army.” The legal marrying age for girls dropped from eighteen to thirteen. To encourage women to bear many children, ration cards were issued on a per capita basis, including newborns.
As war with Iraq dragged on, the birth rate surpassed Khomeini’s demographic dreams. Although a million Iranian fighters, including mere boys, were martyred by inhaling poison gas, clearing land mines, or charging in human waves into artillery barrages, the 1986 census counted nearly 50 million Iranians: a doubling in two decades. By some estimates, the growth rate peaked at 4.2 percent, near the biological limits for fertile women and the highest rate of population increase the world had ever seen.
As the UN brokered a peace deal in 1988, Iranian government officials took stock of the incredibly high level of population growth and decided that it could not continue.
A month after the August 1988 ceasefire finally ended the war, Iran’s religious leaders, demographers, budget experts, and health minister gathered for a summit conference on population in the eastern city of Mashhad, one of holiest cities for the world’s Shi’ite Muslims, whose name means “place of martyrdom.” The weighty symbolism was clear. “The report of the demographers and budget officers was given to Khomeini,” Dr. Shamshiri recalls. The economic prognosis for their overpopulated nation must have been very dire, given the Ayatollah’s contempt for economists, whom he often referred to as donkeys. “After he heard it, he said, ‘Do what is necessary.’ ”
Unlike China, the decision of how many was left to the parents. No law forbade them from having ten if they chose. But no one did. Instead, what happened next was the most stunning reversal of population growth in human history. Twelve years later, the Iranian minister of health would accept the United Nations Population Award for the most enlightened and successful approach to family planning the world had ever seen.
What did they do? They offered free methods of birth control (including sterilization for both women and men), without any restrictions such as needing a husband's approval. And--very importantly--education for women was a top priority. "In 1975, barely a third of Iranian women could read. In 2012, more than 60 percent of Iranian university students were female." These are important reasons why the demographics of predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran today (with a TFR of 1.7 children that is well below replacement level) is quite different from all of its neighbors.


  1. But now the problem is that Iran has the fastest ageing population in the world.

  2. "These are important reasons why the demographics of predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran today (with a TFR of 1.7 children that is well below replacement level) is quite different from all of its neighbors. "
    Azerbaijan has similar fertility patterns today, but it is more secular than Iran.