Nasser Karimi

TEHRAN, IRAN: Iran’s new message to parents: Get busy and have babies.

In a major reversal of once far-reaching family planning policies, authorities are now slashing birth-control programs in an attempt to avoid an aging demographic similar to many Western countries that are struggling to keep up with state medical and social security costs.

The changes — announced in Iranian media last week — came after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the country’s wide-ranging contraceptive services as “wrong.” The independent Shargh newspaper quoted Mohammad Esmail Motlaq, a Health Ministry official, as saying family planning programs have been cut from the budget for the current Iranian year, which began in March.

It’s still unclear, however, whether the high-level appeals for bigger families will translate into a new population spike. Iran’s economy is stumbling under a combination of international sanctions, inflation and double-digit unemployment. Many young people, particularly in Tehran and other large cities, are postponing marriage or keeping their families small because of the uncertainties.

Ali Reza Khamesian, a columnist whose work appears in several pro-reform newspapers, said the change in policy also may be an attempt to send a message to the world that Iran is not suffering from sanctions imposed over the nuclear program that the West suspects is aimed at producing weapons — something Tehran denies.

Abbas Kazemi, a doorman in a private office building, said he cannot afford to have more than two children with his salary of about $220 a month.

“I cannot afford daily life,” he said. “I have to support my wife and two children as well my elderly parents.”

More than half of Iran’s population is younger than 35. Those youth form the base of opposition groups, including the so-called Green Movement that led unprecedented street protests after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009. Some experts have said that trying to boost the numbers for upcoming generations also could feed future political dissent.

The policy shift brings the country full circle.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, families were strongly encouraged to contribute to a baby boom demanded by leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who wanted fast population growth to contribute to a “20 million member army” in support of the ruling theocracy. But the leadership hit the brakes in the 1990s, fearing a galloping population could overwhelm the economy.

Then, in 2005, the newly elected Ahmadinejad called the birth-control measures ungodly and a Western import. In 2009, he unveiled proposals for each new baby to receive $950 in a government bank account and then get $95 every year until reaching 18.

On Wednesday, Khamenei said contraceptive policy made sense 20 years ago, “but its continuation in later years was wrong.”