WASHINGTON, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- The most dramatic demographic shift in human history appears to be taking place in today's Iran. Thirty years ago, as the shah was being driven into exile and the Islamic republic was being established, the fertility rate of Iranian women was 6.5 -- the average number of children born to an Iranian woman of childbearing age.
Today, the fertility rate has collapsed to European levels and even lower. The latest CIA fact book shows it falling from 2.2 in the year 2000 to 1.7 today, which would be considerably lower than the fertility rate of modern Britain.
It may be lower, much lower, than that. Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, claims from the latest U.N. data that the real fertility rate may already be the lowest in the world at 0.66 children per woman.
The implications are profound for the politics and diplomacy and power games of the Middle East and the Gulf, affecting Iran's dreams of being the regional superpower and the tension between the Sunni and the Shiite wings of Islam. Equally important are the implications for the economic future of Iran, which will by mid-century be confronting the challenge of organizing a society with one person of working age for every old-aged pensioner.
In the meantime, it is important to understand the dynamics of this process. Shortly after the shah fell, Saddam Hussein invaded what he thought would be a disorganized and easily beaten Iran. He was frustrated by the extraordinary profligacy of the Iranians with the lives of their troops and their teenage volunteers, who launched endless human-wave attacks against the Iraqi mines, machine guns and artillery in a grisly re-enactment of the horrors of World War I. High birthrates translated into dispensable cannon-fodder.
With the end of the war, which cost something in the region of 1 million dead, the Iranian state thought again about the economic implications of high birth rates and the challenge of finding sufficient jobs for the vast numbers of young Iranians, and adopted a state policy of supporting birth control. Iran remains the only country in the world in which a young couple before marriage must both undergo courses in contraception and family planning.
At the same time, the Iranian revolution was expanding its educational system, and if the goal appears in retrospect to have been quantity rather than quality, the new opportunities were seized dramatically by young women, who now attend and graduate from universities at a far higher rate than men. Women now account for 60 percent of university students, and for far more in some sectors. In the applied physics faculty of Aziz University, 70 percent of the students are women.
"The modern middle-class families who sent their girls to school even before the revolution continued to do so after (the revolution). I think the change that took place after the revolution should be considered part of the reason behind the progress we're seeing now," notes the Paris-based scholar Said Peyvandi. "And that was that the traditional families who had not sent their girls to school before -- because the teachers were men or the school was not Islamic -- these were the girls who took the greatest advantage from the Islamization of schools, or the fact that schools were no longer mixed, as a way of justifying their presence out of the home."
Many of these educated women have decided against marrying because they want to pursue careers, and under Iranian law a wife must obtain her husband's approval before taking a job. Jenkins suggests the rate of female participation in the workforce in 1990 was 22 percent, only a little higher than that of Saudi Arabia. By 2005, 41 percent of the country's employed workforce was female.
There is considerable controversy about the implications for Iran's future weight in the world. But it might explain Iran's pursuit of nuclear power; generals facing a future with too few young men to fill the ranks must either shift to a high-tech form of warfare in which machines count for more than manpower or seek their security in a nuclear deterrent.
That is a question for the future. But Iran's current demographic profile combines a dwindling number of children with a large number of young men of military age, many of them unemployed or underemployed. There is a controversy about this. Jenkins thinks that the demographic shifts mean that Iran is likely to become a stable, placid and peaceful country. Others fear that today's plentiful availability of cannon-fodder means Iran could be highly aggressive over the coming decade.
But there are also domestic implications to bear in mind. Large numbers of unemployed young men tend to be a potentially destabilizing force in society and to be associated with increased levels of crime and violence, at least until they are socialized by marriage and the responsibilities of parenthood. But with marriage in decline and fewer children being born, the fewer men are likely to be tamed by the responsibilities of family life.
The outlook appears to be short-term instability, to be followed in the future by a far more peaceful and elderly Iran. But authoritarian governments can always change demographic patterns if they are determined to do so. Banning all forms of contraception and barring women from jobs and universities could increase the birthrate very quickly, if the regime dares to treat its women in such a way -- and pay the price of forgoing their skills and brain power.