TEHRAN — An adviser to the Iranian Health Ministry recently said every Iranian woman should have four children, to counter "damaging" birth control policies he says have been imposed on Iran. Mohammad Esma'il Akbari, head of the country's Medical Education Association, recently told the local Mizan news agency "destructive population policies" had been imposed "from outside," and were intended to "damage the population structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

The state, Akbari said, must rectify its overall population policy and pursue "specific goals," like "a woman having three to four children." The aim, he explained, was not just to boost demographic growth but also to "restructure" the population by making it younger.

Since the 1979 revolution, Islamic Iran has intermittently followed family planning programs, often with the help of counseling from the UN. However, religious conservatives have regularly denounced them, considering a growing population to be a sign of strength, dismissing family planning as culturally invasive.

The state would provide families with incentives like a home after a third child, cash, land or other benefits.

Akbari, a lecturer in medicine at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University, said the debate on the desirability of population growth has now been settled in Iran, notably with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's support. But the state must engineer this growth with clear policies, he said. Family planners, he urged, "must set four children as their goal" to "restructure" the population.

"All Europeans and Americans" are aiming for that number, he asserted without citing sources or evidence. He rejects the idea that a bigger population would lead to lower living standards.

A family in Eram Zoological Garden in Tehran — Photo: Rouzbeh Fouladi/ZUMA

In Iran today, many families are disinclined to have any children, never mind three or four, given the country's current socio-economic conditions. In mid-March, Health Ministry spokesman Alireza Ra'isi said families were now having less than two children, "which means a falling birth rate. Children will have no close relatives in the near future." He said there was nothing "classy" about having one child, who might suffer loneliness or even depression.

Iran's Statistics Center found in March that in 25 of Iran's 31 provinces, people were having less than two children, with an average national rate of 1.7. Figures indicate that the population (of a little over 80 million) grew more slowly in the 1990s, with the rate of decline becoming sharper in recent years.

A population of 80 million means dignity for a country.

Parliament recently passed a Youthful Population and Family Support law, designed to reshape the population over the coming 7 years. If approved by the Guardian Council, a body of jurists that certifies laws, the state would provide families with incentives like a home after a third child, cash, land or other benefits. This would happen regardless of the present economic predicament where families with a single child struggle to make ends meet.

The increasing number of couples having no children at all is becoming a reality that clashes with Khamenei's calls to boost the population of Muslims. The Supreme Leader said in a speech in March 2019 that having children was God's will. A year earlier, he said a "population of 80 million ... means dignity for that country."

In this potentially blossoming population, the Islamic Republic's rulers see a future army to help export their Islamic revolution, or at least bodies to act as cannon fodder. But it seems most of those born after 1979 disagree with the regime, which does mean they are at a greater risk of early death in custody.

Akbari said debates around abortion and underage marriages were also "confusing" this pivotal population issue.

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