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What Does Iran’s Demographic Precipice Mean?

When Iran’s supreme leader speaks, Iranians listen. Deference is less a sign of respect than fear but, regardless, Iranians understand that the supreme leader runs the show. He sets the tone for the regime and is the only figure who can affect policy. One should expect nothing less from the self-declared “deputy of the Messiah on Earth.”

American policymakers notoriously focus on short-term issues. Within the State Department, Pentagon, and even the Central Intelligence Agency, the majority of staff are focused on the next week’s events and petty bureaucratic tasks rather than long-term strategy. Hence, in 2009, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to support the Iranian people rising up against Khamenei’s repression, because they feared that to do so would make less likely a response to the letter Obama had penned to the supreme leader. (In a subsequent November 3, 2009 speech, Khamenei mocked Obama’s letters.) Likewise, in recent weeks, the Obama administration in various briefings to Congress has argued that the Iran nuclear deal will make a nuclear breakout less likely in the next six months, even if the same deal might hasten Tehran’s breakout ability in the period that follows.

There is little U.S. consideration, however, about what Iran might or could be like in the coming decades. In short, however, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has, in recent months, increased his focus on demography. For example, in a speech earlier this autumn, Khamenei declared:

You should consider the different aspects of this issue. You should see what things make our society lose interest in bearing children. This lack of interest in bearing children is a malady. Otherwise, one naturally likes to have children. Why do a number of people prefer to have only one child? Why do they prefer to have only two children? Why do women and men avoid – in different ways – having children? You should look at these issues and see what factors play a role in this. You should identify these factors and ask experts and thinkers to think about finding a cure for these pathological factors. I believe that these factors are pathological and problematic.

Simply put, Iranian families are shrinking. The person who has most followed the trend over time is Farzaneh Roudi, program director for the Middle East and North Africa region at Population Reference Bureau but, in short, the proportion of the Iranian population under five years old plummeted from 18 percent in 1986 to 10 percent a decade later. The Institut National d’Etudes Demographiques in Paris estimated that Iran’s total fertility rate fell from 6.2 children per woman in 1986 to just 3.5 seven years later. By 2000 it was 2.0, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1.

I have gone into this in a bit more detail for my monthly “Operational Environment Watch” analysis for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office but, in short, while population changes might suggest that ordinary Iranians are embracing more Western attitudes about families and perhaps life in general, an aging population both bodes poorly for the Islamic Republic’s already teetering economy and suggests that the Islamic Republic seeks to shift from having a quantitative military edge to a qualitative military edge in the coming decades, notwithstanding any agreement Secretary of State John Kerry believes he has achieved.

If the Islamic Republic will face severe structural problems and strains in the coming years, then the last thing the United States or Europe should do is throw the current regime an economic lifeline. After all, the most stable outcome for the Middle East would be the re-emergence of an Iran which isn’t subject to clerical rule. That should be the long-term outcome for which the United States strives. That it is also the outcome most Iranians seem to prefer should cement the case.


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