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The Population Boomerang in Iran

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Iranian students are engaging this week in Round Two of their street-level struggle for reform. Round One took place last June, when young people protested the fixed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

About 30 people died in those huge demonstrations. That was a remarkably low number given the brutal tendencies of the hardliners and the in-your-face challenge of the protestors. The old leaders had clearly pulled the choke-leash on their Basij paramilitaries. They understood that they were not dealing with downtrodden masses that they could mow down without enormous consequences.

The maxim "demographics is destiny" helps explain this careful behavior by the side with the guns. Iran's plunging fertility rate has created a different kind of young person, one with a sense of entitlement. These students are educated. They own cell phones. They have ambition.

"No wonder the explosion on the streets of Iran this year seemed like a clash between two worlds," The Economist says in a cover story about falling fertility across the globe. In one corner were Iranians between 15 and 29, one-third of the total population, "better educated and with different expectations." In the other corner was the "established regime and the traditionalists."

Most developing countries have seen significant drops in their fertility rates -- the average number of children women have in their childbearing years. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of children borne by women in poor countries has fallen from an average of six to three.

The Economist links the trend to better education, greater wealth and more political stability. It notes that Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries that haven't lowered their fertility rates, are still ravaged by war.

Watching the recent events in Iran, one must regard the American right's hostility toward family planning programs with wonderment. The Bush administration went to war against a radical Islam that feeds off exploding populations of young, frustrated males -- while withholding money from the United Nations Population Fund. It boggles the mind times-three.

Iran's demographic story is amazing. One of the first things the mullahs did after taking over in 1979 was to crush family planning services. They wanted to build an Islamic population bomb. Little did they know that the bomb might later fall on them.

What happened early on was that fertility rose to a very high seven children per woman. But after 1984, the rate started plunging, to 1.9 by 2006. That is below the (developed country) replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.

Thus, the clerics now face a double-barreled demographic threat. Because of their hyper-fertility policies of 30 years ago, there's a bubble of young people in the rebellious ages. (Even as families became smaller, the population continued to grow because of the large number of women in their childbearing years.) Today, 70 percent of Iranians are under 30.

As an offshoot of smaller families, meanwhile, Iran now has one of the best-educated populations in the Mideast, women as well as men. The young expect to enjoy the fruits of modernity. The women are thinking about their careers, and neither gender wants to hear that their vote didn't count.

The activists are boldly using the 30th anniversary this week of the U.S. Embassy takeover -- a national celebration -- as the pretext for mass rallies against the authorities. (Once the focus of the students' wrath, the United States is now almost a bystander.)

Iranian leaders knew there were limits to messing with these entitled young people last June. Whether desperation will make them cross lines they stopped at back then remains to be seen. Whatever they do, Iran's demographics are not running in their favor.

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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