Official figures indicate that Iranian society is proceeding quickly toward becoming an aging society. As of March 2022, Iran’s population growth barely reached 0.6 percent. According to Mohammed Tabatabai, health affairs officer of Iran University of Medical Sciences, on May 13, 2023, the fertility rate dropped to 1.6 percent. The danger lies in the fact that population growth is expected to decline in the coming years.
If the current downward trend of fertility growth continues unabated, Iran’s population will fall to 82 million people by 2051, according to the Representative Concentration Pathways scenario. By 2060, Iran’s population will reach 77.6 million, and it will be 42 million by 2100. It is also expected that elders will make up 30 percent of the population by 2051. This was reiterated by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a statement, when he said: “The people today are becoming increasingly aging. This is bad and horrible news.” He added: “If this happens, the country will have no means to save itself.” Thus, he urged the Iranian government to find a solution to the problem of an aging society and work to double the country’s population.
Iran’s regime has reviewed its policy toward the population pyramid that has become increasingly marked by old age. The possibility that Iran’s population may decline in the future, according to the regime, will affect Iran’s regional standing and role, given that population is one of the elements of its national strength and an instrumental element in enhancing its regional clout, especially given the demographic competition with its neighbors. Figures show that population and fertility growth rates in these countries are higher than in Iran and the latter feels that this shift will endanger its existence in the future. Iran is situated in an extensively Sunni neighborhood, with loyalist ethnic groups also having a foothold. This means that population growth is not merely an internal issue, but one that also has geopolitical dimensions.
However, the disparity in population growth rates among the various ethnic and sectarian factions inside Iran deepens the concerns of Iran’s Shiite Persian population. This is because the population growth rates among Shiites are far lower than those of Sunnis, which poses a threat to the Shiites’ control over power in the future. Moreover, they threaten the existence of Iran as a Shiite state, as well as the Velayat-e Faqih political project, whose bedrock is the sectarian dimension. It is worth noting that official figures show that the scale is tipped in favor of Sunnis, who number between 20 and 25 million, including 1 million or more in Tehran alone.
The problem is that the Iranian regime itself is to blame for this demographic dilemma. Over the past four decades, the regime has adopted a volatile and populist population policy; a policy that has lacked any comprehensive strategic vision. It is a confused and inconsistent policy. It is a variety of time-dictated authoritative precautions, measures and decisions in response to certain circumstances and based on the interests of the ruling elite. The latter, at times, viewed the issue of population growth as one of the manifestations of the state’s strength and, at others, viewed it as a burden rather than an asset and a source of more crises for Iran. The Iranian elite is heedless of the fact that these crises are not a result of a large population, but rather they are an outcome of the regime’s ineffective policies.
Despite the supreme leader’s repeated pleas, official figures show a reduction in the willingness of Iranians to have children
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Therefore, despite the regime intensifying its efforts to resolve the population crisis, it has found no response. And despite the supreme leader’s repeated pleas, official figures show a reduction in the willingness of Iranians to have children. This is because drastic changes in population policy have harmed the regime and its supreme leadership’s credibility, as well as its ideals, values and slogans. In other words, the regime’s population policy has always shifted based on the regime’s and senior officials’ interests and desires.
When the regime was in dire need of an increase in population growth, its leadership promoted a large population as a heavenly bounty and favor. Conversely, when the regime was hit with economic and developmental problems, it considered birth control to be a national, social and religious duty. When these programs resulted in an unbalanced drop in population growth and fertility rates — without a strategy to maintain balanced rates that preserve the society’s demographic balance in the long term, meaning Iran’s regional ambitions faced a future demographic threat — their mistake was recognized and the West was blamed for targeting Iran.
This policy has accordingly been altered yet again. This confused policy has surely eroded people’s trust in the regime, especially given the government’s failures on the political, economic and social fronts during the last four decades. Because of these failures, living conditions have deteriorated, leaving the youth in despair.
To conclude, it could be said that Iran has failed to strike a balance between population growth and economic development due to the regime’s disorganized population plans. This failure is also linked to Iran’s pursuance of a bellicose and expansionist foreign policy, which has led the country to come under pressures and extensive isolation. Additionally, this problem is also caused by consecutive Iranian governments’ failure to adopt an economic policy that is an alternative to the populist resistance economy policy. As a result, economic growth results have remained low, with the country failing to achieve a good level of governance or increase investments, thereby not elevating living standards or improving living conditions, as is the case with the Gulf states.
The only way for Iran to get out of its current demographic dilemma is to push up the wheel of economic development at home. But this will not be achieved without Iran settling its regional and global disputes. On the ground, there is a timely opportunity for Iran to do this after restoring ties with Saudi Arabia, increasing the likelihood of it ending its regional and global isolation and boosting ties with the region’s countries — including the badly needed economic relations.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami