Photo by Nader Davoodi
Numbers don't lie
Demography holds Iran's destiny
By Farzaneh Roudi
May 31, 2000
The opening of the sixth Iranian parliament on May 27 has demonstrated
that popular reforms in Iran initiated by President Mohammad Khatami are
irreversible. For the first time since 1979 revolution, supporters of the
reform movement in Iran hold a solid majority in the parliament, where
the average age of the new members is 15 years younger than that of the
The demographic process is pervasive. Young Iranians were responsible
for the reformers' win in the recent parliamentary elections, as they were
in the 1997 election of moderate Khatami. One-quarter of the Iranian population
is between the ages of 15 and 25. The coming of age of a huge cohort of
young Iranians living in cities in the information age is changing the
face of the Islamic Republic.
Demography holds Iran's destiny. Over a million students born around
the time of the revolution now occupy the universities. More young people
are reaching the Iranian voting age of 16. Young women in particular are
better educated and much more aware of the worldwide equal rights movement
than their mothers were.
Ironically, the outsized youth who now challenge the hard-liners is
largely the product of the revolutionary leadership. After the revolutionaries
took over in 1979, the national family planning program was proclaimed
"pro-West" and pronatalist policies were adopted. In 1980, the
start of the 8-year war with Iraq, added another reason for a large population.
Ayatollah Khomeini was often quoted as saying, "Our soldiers are in
their cribs." By the mid-1980s the population was growing at a rate
of close to 4 percent annually, one of the highest in the world.
But this baby-boom was followed by a baby-bust. At war's end, when the
government focused on economic reconstruction, Iran's rapid population
growth was seen as a crucial obstacle to development. As a result, the
government implemented a highly successful family planning program and
suggested families should have no more than three children. Population-control
slogans, such as "Population Control Reins in Unemployment and Illiteracy,"
were substituted for pro-natalist ones. The rate of population growth dropped
to 1.4 percent a year by mid 1990s.
Meanwhile, the enormous youth cohort from the high fertility years presses
against the strictures of an aging revolution. While hard-liners may use
force in attempts to maintain status quo, as in the closing of pro-reform
publications, demography is on the side of the reform movement. The size
of youth population, which by nature is activist, has doubled since the
revolution. More than 16 million Iranians are between the ages of 15 and
25 out of a total population of 65 million.
As it was in the case of the revolution, the reform movement is an urban
phenomenon. Over 60 percent of Iran's population now live in cities. The
density of this congested population allows for easier interaction, information
exchange, and organized activities. On May 22, 3,000 students in Tehran
University gathered to celebrate the third anniversary of Khatami's election.
They took the opportunity, in their banners and slogans, to attack hard-liners
for their role in cracking down on journalists, their possible connections
to the killings of Iranian dissidents, and questioned Rafsanjani's legitimacy
in the parliament that lead to his withdrawal ["Three
Another demographic factor in favor of the reform movement is the large
number of Iranians living outside Iran, specifically in the United States.
There are an estimated three million Iranians outside Iran. One million
are in the United States. Not only have they maintained contact with their
homeland, they are increasingly active in Iranian affairs. Iranian media
have flourished in the U.S. in recent years. In the beginning, their goal
was to keep the Iranian-American community informed of events at home.
Now, particularly since the reform movement has gained momentum, raising
hopes for closer ties with the U.S., these media outlets have added the
responsibility of keeping Iranians inside Iran informed about domestic
Iranians, who have satellite dishes, can watch one hour of Iranian programs
broadcast from Los Angeles every night. These TV broadcasts join a number
of Iranian radio stations that broadcast from outside Iran. And, especially
appealing to the young generation, a number of Iranian Internet news sites
carry the latest information on Iranian politics, among other topics. Pro-reformers
in Iran are well aware that these outside links can work in their favor.
As a result, they keep these news services abreast of domestic events in
the hope that this might undermine hard-liners' grip on power.
Demography, then, is destiny in Iran. The young age structure, high
level of urbanization, and increasing contact with Iranians abroad conspire
against radicalism in the name of revolution.
Farzaneh Roudi is senior policy analyst at the Population Reference
Bureau in Washington, DC.