Iran is currently convulsed by the fourth wave of mass protests to shake the country since the student uprising of 1999 – the others being 2009 and 2017/2019. Making sense of the drivers of this upheaval is crucial if we are to understand the unfolding poly-crisis in West Asia.
In the case of each protest wave, there have been specific triggers. In the Green revolution of 2009 the issue were the rigged elections. Today, the violent and degrading treatment of Iranian women by the regime’s morality police is in the forefront. In the background are the economic problems of the regime exacerbated by US sanctions. These first triggered protests in 2017 and 2019. Today inflation is running close to 50 percent, which foments a continuous rumble of protests and strikes by workers of all kinds.
Iran’s inflation rate
Source: Trading Economics
It is tempting also to think of another common factor that unites these protests. Particularly in 2009 Iran was singled out as a locus classicus of the “youth bulge” diagnosis, that then served as a template for making sense of the 2011 Arab Spring. Superficially, it is a compelling analysis. Too many young people, with too much education and not enough jobs make for an explosive mixture. Data for unemployment and education in Iran for 2016/7 show unemployment rising with education up to the age of 34. Rates of unemployment amongst highly educated women run to staggering levels. Clearly this is still a major force in play.
The “youth bulge” narrative is where both Cameron Abadi and I started out, when we set out to record the latest episode of Ones and Tooze featuring a segment on Iran. But then I started reading into the subject and found a story that truly surprised me.
Check out the podcast here:
It turns out that though the youth “bulge story” fits well for Iranian society in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Iran is actually in the grips of the dramatic transition ever recorded in demographic history. Between the 1980s and the 2010s Iranian women reduced the rate at which they had children from 6.5 to 2.5, faster than the pace of the one child policy in China. And they did so with the regime’s support.
Demography is thus one more zone in which the contradictions of Iran’s gender regime come to the fore. Iran is a society in which maternal mortality is lower than in the US (admittedly not the lowest bar), but only 5 percent of seats in parliament are taken by women. It is a country in which women in university outnumber males, and in which attainment in secondary education extends to over 70 percent of women over 25 (versus 76 percent for men). But it also a society in which female participation in the formal labour market runs to only 14 percent, by the latest UN count, half the rate reported by Saudi Arabia and on a par with Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power. On top of all this it is society, which went through the fastest demographic transition on record, which the regime is now seeking to undo.
The Shah of course boasted of his program of modernization. His family planning program established in 1966 was under the patronage of no lesser personage than Ashraf Pahlavi, the Shah’s sister. It attracted extensive funding from USAID, but it was largely ineffective in changing behavior. In that respect it had much in common with the Shah’s broader development measures which went skin-deep at best.
In the 1980s under the pressure of the Iran-Iraq war, the initial rhetoric of the Islamic Republic was pronatalist. Ayatollah Khomeini called for e a “20 million man army” and state child subsidies boosted the incomes of the poorest households. It was in the mid 1980s at the highpoint of the war that Iranian fertility reached its peak at over 6.5 children per woman.
This was not sustainable and by the late 1980s contraceptive use was spreading not just in Iran’s cities but in the countryside as well. As Akbar Aghajanian and Amir H Mehryar report in their fascinating 2005 account in the International Journal of Sociology of the Family
In February 1988, Prime Minister Moosavi sent a secret circular to all ministries and government departments asking them to carefully consider the implications of the high rate of population growth revealed by the 1986 census. Then in March 1988 a committee was organized in the Ministry of Plan and Budget, consisting mostly of the technical staff of that ministry and a few academic demographers, to prepare for organization of a population seminar. To facilitate the work of the conference committee, the Prime Minister issued a memorandum to all government ministries declaring that the government was “reconsidering the issue of population growth”. A highly publicized three-day “Population and Development Seminar” was held in Mashad city in September 1988. It was opened with a special message from the Prime Minister. The Ministers of Plan and Budget and Health presented detailed analyses of the implications of unchecked population growth for the socioeconomic development of the country as well as the health and welfare of its citizens.
As Richard Cincotta and Karim Sadjapour spell out in an illuminating Carnegie report, senior regime officials came to see this rapid demographic growth as a ticking time-bomb. The Islamic Republic made extensive welfare and development commitments to its citizens. And in the wake of the war under the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–1997), these pro-poor policies bore dramatic fruit. With the war crisis overcome, over the following decades the material circumstances of life for ordinary Iranians were transformed.
What worried the officials in the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance was the cost of these policies in light of Iran’s explosive demographic growth. In collaboration with officials from the public health sector they began urging a deliberate policy of population restriction. And in December 1989 this was adopted as a three-pronged strategy (1) to encourage a spacing of 3 to 4 years between pregnancies; (2) to discourage pregnancy for women aged below 18 and above 35 years; and (3) to limit family size to 3 children. By the early 1990s population restriction had won the argument. Along with electricity and clean water supplies, Iran’s Islamic Republic became a purveyor of free birth-control and family planning advice.
In a shockingly short space of time Iranian men and women embraced a radically new demographic model. This was assisted by state-run voluntary family planning services and counseling. In this regard at least the Shah’s program bore late fruit in that many of the public health technicians and physicians who staffed the Republic’s new birth-control army. received their training before 1979. On the ground the program was backed by local “health houses,” staffed principally by trained female nurses.
In the poorer urban areas, state-subsidized clinics, pharmacies and doctor’s offices took the lead. By 2000, a remarkable 90 percent of Iran’s families lived within 2 kilometers of a health clinic or family planning delivery unit, with mobile units covering remoter rural areas. By the early 2000s 62 percent of married Iranian women of childbearing age were using modern contraception and Iran was the only Islamic country to have its own production capacity for condoms.
The initial target for the program was to to reduce the Total Fertility Rate to 4 children per woman by 2011. In fact, Iran’s fertility crashed to replacement level of just over 2 children per woman already by 2005 at the end of Mohammad Khatami’s period in office.
This revolutionary transition came as a considerable shock to conservatives within the regime and Khatami’s administration was blamed. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei denounced “the negative aspects of the Western life style” and with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, the biopolitical stance of the regime abruptly pivoted. Ahmadinejad pilloried family planning as a Western conspiracy and in 2010 he rolled out a program of lavish subsidies for large Iranian families. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei now denounced his governments’ previous population control measures as a “mistake.” In a dramatic declaration of responsibility in 2012 he declared: “Government officials were wrong on this matter, and I, too, had a part. . . . May God and history forgive us.” In 2014 Iran ended free contraception and passed legislation to prohibit vasectomies, enable younger marriages for women, subsidize additional births and curtailed Iran’s unusually progressive pre-marriage education program. It was as part of this same package that women students were also excluded from some professional university majors.
Beyond the struggle over headscarves and other forms of overt discrimination against Iranian women, there is, thus, another battle being waged over the future of Iranian society. It is a struggle conducted in doctors’ offices and in the bedrooms of the country. In combination with the stalled economic development of the period since 2011 it makes for an explosive mixture in which public and private visions of “development” increasingly diverge.
Having unleashed a genuine social revolution, the regime has tried for the last decade to vainly stem the tide. The idea of reversing the demographic transition is most likely hopelessly unrealistic. The most that the regime can presumably hope for is to hold the birth rate above 2 children per woman as opposed to East Asia’s plunge to 1.6. In any event, most credible predictions see Iran’s population stabilizing around 90 million. For the foreseeable future, Teheran would presumably be best-advised to make all it can of the demographic dividend, which the governments of the 1990s and the early 2000s have bestowed on it.
The demographics alone are favorable. The effect is compounded by the rising educational investment per student. In 1975, about 84 percent of women in their prime working ages were without a primary-school education. By the 2010s that proportion had fallen to below 12 percent and was rapidly declining. By 2035, Iran’s workforce educational profile is projected to reach that attained by South Korea in 1995. By 2035 two-thirds or more of Iran’s prime-working-age adults are expected to have an upper secondary or postsecondary education.
The question is whether Teheran can secure the macroeconomic conditions domestically or the international conditions to make the best of this opportunity. Since the 1990s Iran’s median age has surged from round about 19, to more than 31 years of age. That number will only increase in years to come. If it cannot provide growth and employment opportunities, what Teheran will face in years to come is not so much a youth bulge as a national midlife crisis.
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