Inside Iran: Iran’s demographic problem

Author David Goldman sees Iran’s current policies through the prism of the Islamic Republic’s declining birth rate.

An Iranian woman strolls with her daughter in Tehran. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Iranian woman strolls with her daughter in Tehran.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Is there a correlation between Iran’s nuclear program and its low fertility rate or, perhaps as well, between the vitality of Islamic civilization and its shrinking birthrates? There is, according to David Goldman, a fellow at the right-wing, US-based think tank the Middle East Forum, and a longtime writer for Asia Times Online under the moniker Spengler. The author of How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too), Goldman, an economist by training, explains the impact demographic fluctuations have on the greater strategic balance of power between states and civilizations.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post during a recent visit to Israel to promote the launch of the Hebrew version of his book, Goldman explained how he has followed demographic literature and the changes in Muslim demography.
Positive demographics are a result of societies that are forward-looking and self-confident, he said.
“A lack of desire for children is typically a symptom of civilizational decline,” and the Muslim world is currently witnessing such a phenomenon, he avers.
Europe is going through a similar phase and there are obvious parallels with the Muslim world, he says, pointing out that when “traditional societies encounter the modern world and lose self-confidence, traditional behavior such as religion, childbearing, and other cultural patterns change radically.”
“In Iran this occurred in one generation, while in Turkey it took two.”
The estimated birthrate in Iran is around 1.86 children per woman for 2013, below the replacement rate of two births per woman, according to the CIA World Factbook. However, many demographers think Iran’s fertility rate is even lower, at around 1.6 to 1.7.
A fertility rate higher than 2.1 births per woman indicates population growth.
Contraception is also widely used in Iran, having been previously promoted by the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in the 1980s – although in 2012, Tehran scrapped its birth control program after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Islamic Republic should aim for a population of 150 million to 200 million.
Other Middle Eastern states’ birthrates have also been declining.
According to the CIA World Factbook 2013 estimates, Turkey had a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman, Tunisia 2.01, Morocco 2.17, Saudi Arabia 2.21, Kuwait 2.56, Syria 2.77, Algeria 2.78, Egypt 2.9, Jordan 3.32, and Iraq 3.5.
According to a 2009 UN report titled “Fertility Prospects in the Arab Region,” carried out by John Casterline of Ohio State University, a sharp decline in birthrates is charted, especially since the 1980s.
For example, from 1950-1955, the Algerian fertility rate was 7.3, Egypt 6.4, Tunisia 6.9, Iraq and Syria 7.3, Jordan 7.4, and Morocco, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at 7.2.
Under the rule of the shah, before the 1979 revolution, Iran became the first Muslim country to achieve universal literacy.
The higher the literacy and education, the lower the birthrates tend to be, said Goldman, adding that Turkey is suffering from a similar trend.
By the middle of this century, a third of Iranians will be older than 60, compared to only 7 percent today, and the cost of caring for elderly dependents will crush Iran’s economy, he says.
Iran is undergoing economic and demographic decline, explains Goldman, and in order to carry out the regime’s regional and global expansionist ambitions, it needs more resources, which could be easier to obtain under the umbrella of nuclear weapons.
Goldman compares Iran’s predicament to that of the former Soviet Union.
From the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the country’s leadership began to act more aggressively – perhaps because they understood that it was the last chance to push for power amid an economic and demographic decline, Goldman explains.
In Iran, mosque attendance is low, just as church attendance is in England, he states.
“The best predictor of the number of children in industrial societies is religious observance,” he says.
Asked about initiatives by some countries to counter birth rate decline by offering government subsidies, Goldman responded, “Subsidies have some effect, but the main reason to have children is not economic, but emotional.”
Regarding Israel and the Palestinians, he points out that from the river to the sea, not including Gaza, the birthrate for Arab Muslims and Jews is around 3. However, the trends are going in opposite directions, with Jewish fertility increasing and Arab fertility decreasing.
“In fact,” says Goldman, “the situation is worse for the Palestinians,” because the official data provided by the Palestinian Authority is inflated.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said during a speech at the Saban Center in December that Israel needs to heed the “demographic time bomb” of Palestinian population growth. Goldman refutes the validity of this argument.
“The argument that there is an urgent reason to do something right now is simply false – there is no urgency,” he asserts. “Palestinian Arabs have the highest living standards and upward mobility of any Arabs in the world except for some in the Gulf states.”
Another important factor, he says, is that aging populations are less warlike than younger ones. The Good Friday agreement in Ireland was reached in 1998, and it was helped by a population decrease, he notes.
Asked about how this knowledge could benefit US policy, he says, “The US needs to abandon the illusion that it can stabilize most of the Muslim world.”
There is going to be “a long period of chaos, and the best we can do is prevent it from hurting us.”
Goldman says he agrees with Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, who said that the concept of individual rights comes even before democracy. In Western society, this is a concept derived from the Jewish idea that human beings have inalienable rights. “No such concept exists in Islam,” he says.
Egypt, he says, is a “banana republic without the bananas,” and is “in danger of a humanitarian disaster and social collapse.”
The best-case scenario is that the Gulf states subsidize the country.
As for Syria, he believes there are two evil sides, and that a partition of the country would be best. The Russians would probably agree to some formulation where an Alawite state would be formed, he adds.
Concerning the Kurds, he says, “A Kurdish state is inevitable, and it is in the interest of the US to encourage it to be pro-American.”
Regarding US politics, Goldman thinks the problem with Republican foreign policy is that it continues to “bet so much on president George W. Bush’s freedom agenda” of spreading democracy throughout the Muslim world, and it “is difficult for many to back out of it.”
The best policy at the moment? “Manage the chaos in the region.”