(September 2004) Amid increasing international pressure to curb its nuclear program, Iran also faces significant population pressures at home: from creating jobs for a massive pool of young baby boomers to resolving provincial disparities in the availability of reproductive health services.

Unemployment, particularly among young workers and women, constitutes a major challenge. Between 1991 and 1999, the country’s unemployment increased at an annual rate of close to 9 percent. During that period, jobs were created for less than 60 percent of those entering the job market, according to a 2003 United Nations Common Country Assessment of Iran’s development.

Iranian women are also lagging in the work force. The UN report noted that 62 percent of working-age men and a mere 10 percent of women were participating in Iran’s labor force.

Lack of Jobs Linked to Brain Drain

The tight domestic job market may be causing large numbers of educated Iranians to leave the country. A 1998 International Monetary Fund study found that 15 percent of Iranians over age 25 with 13 or more years of schooling were migrants in the United States at the time of the 1990 U.S. Census. Other experts have highlighted this brain drain.

“Educated, young Iranians are fleeing the country in large numbers in search of better lives,” says Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, a senior policy analyst at the Population Reference Bureau (PRB). “Strict social codes imposed by the Islamic government as well as economic pressures are pushing Iranians, particularly those in their 20s or 30s, to leave the country. This brain drain is one of the biggest economic and social problems facing Iran today.”

Iranian women and men also have different literacy rates. Although an unprecedented number of Iranian women are entering university (for some years, even in a larger numbers than men), men are still leading in literacy rates. Some 87 percent of adult Iranian males can read and write, compared with 76 percent of the country’s adult females, according to the Common Country Assessment.

The gaps are greatest between the most developed and least developed provinces. Some 94 percent of men in Tehran were literate in 2000, compared with only 45 percent of women in Sistan-Baluchestan, a province that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, roughly 61 percent of secondary school students enrolled in pre-university courses in 2000/2001 were women.

Baby Boom Increases Demand for Jobs, Schooling

The demand for higher education and jobs in Iran increased as a result of the country’s 1980s population boom. From 1976 to 1991, the country’s population grew at an annual rate of 3.4 percent—swelling from 34 million to 56 million people. The growth spurt followed the 1979 Islamic revolution, when Iran’s new government promoted population growth, marking a departure from the policies of the ousted royal family.

Although the pace of population growth has since declined dramatically (the current annual rate is about 1.2 percent), the bulge in the country’s population caused by grown-up boomers is altering Iran’s demographic landscape. UN estimates show that the share of the population that is 15-to-24-years-old grew from about 19 percent in 1975 to 24 percent in 2000. That proportion is projected to increase to 25 percent by 2005, according to the United Nations’ World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision.

Improved Health Figures Mask Regional Disparities

Some health measures have improved for Iranians since the 1970s. Life expectancy at birth in Iran is the same as in Turkey to the northwest and some 8 years higher than in Pakistan to the southeast. A child born in Iran can expect to live to around 69 years, up from 56 years in the early 1970s. The number of children who die before their first birthdays has fallen to 35 deaths for every 1,000 live births—roughly one-quarter of the 1970s UN estimate for the country.

Today, the quality of life for the 67 million people of Iran—a major oil and gas producer—is “average,” by UN standards. The 2004 UN ranking of countries’ development, based on achievements in education, living standards, and life expectancy, places Iran in the high-medium category, between countries like Ecuador and the Palestinian Territories.

At the same time, Iran faces the challenge of addressing a number of regional disparities in health that are particularly evident in estimates of life expectancy and child deaths. UN data show that life expectancy in Tehran, Iran’s capital, was more than 70 years in 1996, compared with 61 years in Sistan-Baluchestan. The probability of a child dying before age 5 is about 32 in 1,000 in Tehran, but almost three times that figure in Sistan-Baluchestan.

“A lack of investment in health clinics and other facilities in remote rural areas has helped to perpetuate the gap between town and countryside,” says the 2003 United Nations Common Country Assessment. “Since employees in the health sector receive relatively low pay, they have little incentive to work in difficult remote areas.”

Regional disparities also exist in reproductive health. Following the 1980s population boom, increases in contraceptive use among Iranian married women contributed to a decline in both births and in population growth rates nationally. A family planning program that was inaugurated in 1989 encourages Iranians to limit their family size to three children and discourages pregnancies for women younger than 18 and older than 35 years. While the family planning program provides free services throughout Iran, some areas show lower levels of contraceptive use.

The PRB report Iran’s Family Planning Program: Responding to a Nation’s Needs highlights these disparities. According to the report, family planning use is lowest in Sistan-Baluchestan (42 percent of married women), followed by women in the southern province of Hormozgan (55 percent). In Tehran, 82 percent of married women use family planning.

Yet even the contraceptive use numbers for the country’s least developed provinces are relatively high for the Middle East. For example, only 32 percent of married women in Saudi Arabia and 43 percent in Qatar use any family planning method, according to PRB’s 2004 World Population Data Sheet.

HIV/AIDS Poses Growing Threat

Halting the spread of HIV/AIDS represents another major challenge in Iran. While the UNAIDS estimate of adult prevalence in Iran is low (0.1 percent), the epidemic shows signs of spreading, with injecting drug use emerging as the major contributor to infection.

The number of newly diagnosed infections and AIDS cases in 2001 showed a threefold increase over the previous two years. In that year, an estimated 64 percent of all AIDS cases in Iran were injecting drug users.

Measures taken by the Iranian government to halt the spread of HIV in recent years have included providing free anti-AIDS treatment to all HIV patients. The government, which is particularly worried about drug use among young people, is also providing treatment and harm-reduction strategies for injecting drug users.

Given the growth in Iran’s young population, says the UN Common Country Assessment, another priority for the country must be to increase reproductive health services and to provide adolescents with appropriate information about how to avoid infection.

Indicator Data
Population Mid-2004 67,433,000
Population 2025 (projected) 84,655,000
Population 2050 (projected) 96,465,000
Total Fertility Rate (avg. no. of children born to a woman during her lifetime) 2.5
Population Under Age 15 (%) 33
Population Over Age 65 (%) 5
Life Expectancy at Birth, Both Sexes (years) 69
Life Expectancy at Birth, Males (years) 68
Life Expectancy at Birth, Females (years) 70
Women ages 15-49, 2020 (projected) 25,700,000
Births Attended by Skilled Personnel (%) 86
Maternal Deaths per 100,000 Live Births 130

Sources: Carl Haub, 2004 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: PRB, 2004); and Justine Sass and Lori Ashford, Women of Our World 2002 (Washington, DC: PRB, 2002). All these data can be found in PRB’s DataFinder at www.prb.org/datafinder.

Yvette Collymore is senior editor at PRB.


Carl Haub, 2004 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: PRB, 2004).

Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, Iran’s Family Planning Program: Responding to a Nation’s Needs (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2002).

Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, Islam and Family Planning (Washington, DC: PRB, 2004).

Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, 2004 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic (Geneva: UNAIDS, 2004).

Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, UNICEF, and World Health Organization, “Epidemiological Fact Sheets by Country,” accessed online at www.who.int/emc-hiv/fact_sheets/All_countries.html, on Sep. 7, 2004.

United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2003).

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), The State of the World’s Children 2004 (New York: UNICEF, 2003).

The United Nations Country Team in Iran, United Nations Common Country Assessment for the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York: United Nations, 2003).

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World (New York: UNDP, 2004).

William J. Carrington and Enrica Detragiache, “How Big is the Brain Drain?” International Monetary Fund (IMF) Working Paper 98/102 (Washington, DC: IMF, July 1998).