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Numbers don't lie
Demography holds Iran's destiny

By Farzaneh Roudi
May 31, 2000
The Iranian

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 outgoing members.

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 years later"].

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 events.

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.

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