Iran's demographic catastrophe in the making, I have long argued, impels Tehran
to stake its claim for regional empire quickly, while it still has the manpower
to do so. Now one of the world's most attentive students of the global South,
Prof Philip Jenkins, has taken notice of Iran's population bust and come to a
conclusion diametrically opposite to mine. Writing in the November 9 New
Republic, he opines, "there's a good chance that [Iran's] declining
fertility rates will usher in a new era of stability - an Iran that is
bourgeois, secular, less like Children of Men's bombed-out Britain and more
like ... Denmark".
It pains me to take Prof Jenkins to the woodshed - I gave his last book a
glowing review  - but it does not seem to have occurred to him that things
which make peace inevitable in the long run may propel countries into war in
the short run. The textbook example (if we had a competent textbook) would be
France in 1914, which sought a quick war because its falling birth rate ensured
that it could not beat Germany unless it did so immediately (more on this
below). Republican France was not afflicted by the apocalyptic visions of
Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, but led the rush to war just the same.
Population decline eventually leads to stability, but not necessarily by a
direct path. Some years ago a Danish politician proposed to replace the Defense
Ministry with a telephone answering machine with the message: "We surrender."
Unlike Denmark, whose raiders terrorized Europe during the Dark Ages, Iran is
not yet dead. I am reminded of Heinrich Heine's verse about a jilted lover:
Die Maedchen fluestern sich
ins Ohr: "Der Stieg wohl aus dem Grab
empor." Nein, nein, ihr lieben
Der legt sich erst ins Grab hinein.
(The pretty girls passed by
and quipped: "He must have risen from his
crypt!" Not yet, I'd tell the girls, if
He first will die, and then be
Before Iran is buried, it will have occasion to
command the undivided attention of the West. The rulers of the Persian
pocket-empire know better than Jenkins that today's soldiers will become
pensioners a generation hence, turning a belligerent and ambitious country into
an impoverished, geriatric ruin. They believe that Iran has a last opportunity
for greatness, on which they will stake their last dinar. I summarized the
evidence in a series of essays in this space, including
The demographics of radical Islam (Aug 23, 2005) and
Demographics and Iran's imperial design (Sept 13, 2005).
Jenkins reports, Iran's fertility rate has fallen
to only 1.7 children per female, below the
population replacement rate of
2.1. A generation ago, it
stood at 6.5. In other words, Iran presently has a bulge of military-age men as
cannon-fodder. In a generation it will not be able to fill the ranks.
What does this imply? "The connection between fertility rates and political
stability is still not fully understood," Jenkins writes, "mostly because the
human race has never, in its entire history, reproduced at below-replacement
levels." But Jenkins has not a word to say about the sources of Iran's
extremely low birth rate, much lower, in fact, than that of most of Western
Europe. Iran's extremely low birth rate resembles the Ukraine or Belarus more
than it does Denmark. One explanation is demoralization and degradation,
including prostitution on an alarming scale (see
Jihadis and whores, Nov 21, 2006). That might explain why Iran's
birthrate is closest to that of the Eastern European countries that lose the
most females to human trafficking.
Birth rates as such are not the question. The question is: why is the human
race reproducing at below-replacement levels in the first place? Along with
Phillip Longman and others, I contend that the decline of religious faith lies
at the root of the problem. Without the hope of eternal life, humankind cannot
abide its earthly existence, and ceases to propagate. Iran's demographic
implosion implies the erosion of the faith of traditional society.
Jenkins is quite right that the sort of despair that causes depopulation often
leads to depression and inactivity. Most of the 6,700 languages now spoken will
become extinct not with a bang, but a whimper. But that is not always the case.
Hitler was decidedly pessimistic about the future of the Aryan race. He wrote
in Mein Kampf, "Aryan races … create cultures which originally bear all
the inner characteristics of their nature, however, the conquerors transgress
against the principle of blood purity … they begin to mix with the subjugated
inhabitants and thus end their own existence; for the fall of man in paradise
has always been followed by his expulsion." In his own time, Hitler believed
that the Aryan race stood at the edge of extinction, due to interbreeding and
poisoning of blood through syphilis, and might be saved only by early and
extreme action which, however, only would postpone the inevitable Goetterdaemmerung.
The French example, though, is the most convincing, because the issue of
declining population growth rates was openly debated as a strategic risk to
France immediately before the First World War. As historian Judith Wishnia
observes, fear about the falling French birth rate in the face of German
demographic dynamism worsened the crisis that led to the First World War.
Politicians, clergy, the literati and the army exhorted the French to have more
children in the strategic interests of the nation. 
Between 1870, when Germany
humiliated Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian
War, and 1914, the population of the German Empire
nearly doubled, while the French population was
In 1870, the two countries could field roughly the same number of soldiers; by
1913, Germany had nearly double the available manpower.
Just prior to the outbreak of general war in August 1914, France had called up
80% of its military age men in the most comprehensive mobilization in history.
Only by keeping nearly all its available manpower in uniform could France field
enough soldiers to match the German army in the field. With a much larger
population, Germany had only half its military-age men under arms. The economic
strain upon France of maintaining such a high degree of mobilization was
insupportable. France either had to go to war quickly, or lose its only
opportunity to revenge itself upon Germany for the loss of territory and the
humiliation of 1870.
No single country, to be sure bears the guilt for the outbreak of this war, but
there is considerable evidence that France used all its influence to bring
Russia into the war. The French ambassador to Russia, Maurice Paleologue,
persuaded a skeptical Czar Nicholas II that war was likely and that he need to
prepare for it. Paleologue's
memoirs are available online in English translation, and I have cited
some of the relevant passages in
French bellicosity in 1914 refutes the political scientist's canard that
democracies do not start wars. But it is true that democracy makes it harder
for even the most bloodthirsty government to begin a war. France saw no
alternative to war, except resignation to unending mediocrity, as it ceased to
breed soldiers. All the less should we expect Iran's theocratic dictatorship to
give up its nuclear ambitions and its territorial designs on its neighbors in
the face of demographic crisis.
 A new Jerusalem
in sub-Saharan Africa  See "Natalisme et nationalisme pendant la
premiere guerre mondiale," by Judith Wishnia Vingtieme Siecle. Revue
d'histoire, No 45 (Jan-Mar 1995), pp 30-39