By Robert Tait
Iran has scrapped its birth control program in a radical policy reversal intended to produce a baby boom that could more than double its population.
The health ministry confirmed the shift days after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, said that the two-decade-old policy of controlled growth must end and that Iran should aim for a population of 150 to 200 million.
A recent census revealed the country currently has just over 75 million inhabitants. According to data published by the UN in 2009, Iran topped the global list of countries experiencing the greatest drop in fertility rates since 1980.
The reduction was achieved with the help of an extensive publicly backed initiative that included vasectomies, health-ministry-issued contraceptives, statutory family planning advice for newlyweds and even a state-owned condom factory.
It was introduced in the early 1990s when officials feared a population explosion like the one that occurred after the 1979 Islamic Revolution could stretch resources to breaking point.
But the health minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, told Iranian journalists that funding had been withdrawn and that 190 billion rials ($15.5 billion) would instead be devoted to encouraging bigger families.
“The budget for the population control program has been fully eliminated and such a project no longer exists in the health ministry,” she said. “The policy of population control does not exist as it did previously.”
Her announcement came after Ayatollah Khamenei, in a nationally televised speech, invoked the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the revolution, to declare current birth control practices no longer appropriate.
“The policy of population restriction should definitely be revised and the authorities should build the culture in order to abandon the current status of one child, two children [per family],” he said.
“The figure of 150 or 200 million was once stated by the Imam [Khomeini] and that is the correct figure that we should reach.”
While around half of Iranians are under 35, officials fear the low growth rate—currently 1.2 percent compared with 3.2 percent in 1986—would eventually lead to an aging and eventually decreasing population.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has previously called on Iranians to have more children, saying it would help Iran to defeat the West. Three years ago, he introduced a scheme that deposited about $900 in a bank account for every newborn baby, topped up with about $90 every year until he or she reached 18.
However, experts have warned the population drive will founder on the reluctance of couples to marry and have children in an economy blighted by unemployment, inflation, and the effects of Western sanctions aimed at combating Iran’s nuclear program.
Ali Reza Marandi, a former health minister and current member of the parliamentary health committee, told Arman newspaper that abolishing the birth control program “would not add a single baby” to the population.
He added: “Our problem is that our young people either don’t marry or marry late and in Iran, as long as there is no marriage, there are no babies. And those people who marry late suffice to only one child.”