Ayatollah Khomeini’s prayers for a massive army of young men to combat Iraq were answered all too well. His urging for fertile females to reproduce with no pregnant pauses spurred Iran’s population to swell to 50 million by 1986. Once the war ended, what was the country to do with all those working-age people who needed jobs, food and clean water? An excerpt follows from Alan Weisman’s Countdown, republished at Matter, which looks at family-planning efforts inside a theocracy.
Secret meetings commenced with the Supreme Leader to discuss the population blessing that was now a population crisis. Years later, demographer and population historian Abbasi-Shavazi would interview the 1987 planning and budget director, and learn that he had met with the president’s cabinet and explained what excessive human numbers portended for the nation’s future. To feed, educate, house, and employ everyone would far outstrip their capacity, as Iran was exhausted and nearly bankrupt. There were so many children that primary schools had to move from double to triple shifts. The planning and budget director and the minister of health presented an initiative to reverse demographic course and institute a nationwide family-planning campaign. It was approved by a single vote.
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.’ ”
It meant convincing 50 million Iranians of the opposite of what they’d heard for the past eight years: that their patriotic duty was to be forcibly fruitful. Now, a new slogan was strung from banners, repeated on billboards, plastered on walls, broadcast on television, and preached at Friday prayers by the same mullahs who once enjoined them to produce a great Islamic generation by making more babies:
One is good. Two is enough.
The next year, 1989, Imam Khomeini died. The same prime minister who had hailed fertility rates approaching nine children per woman as God-sent now launched a new national family-planning program. 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.
If it all was voluntary, how did Iran do it?•