Political Islam returned to the world stage with Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979
revolution in Iran, which became the most aggressive patron of Muslim radicals
outside its borders, including Hamas in the Palestinian territories and
Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Until very recently, an oil-price windfall gave the Iranian state ample
resources to pursue its agenda at home and abroad. How, then, should we explain
an eruption of social pathologies in Iran such as drug addiction and
prostitution, on a scale much worse than anything observed in the West?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, it appears that Islamic theocracy promotes
rather than represses social decay.
Iran is dying. The collapse of Iran's birth rate during the past 20 years is
the fastest recorded in any country, ever. Demographers
have sought in vain to explain Iran's population implosion through family
planning policies, or through social factors such as the rise of female
But quantifiable factors do not explain the sudden collapse of fertility. It
seems that a spiritual decay has overcome Iran, despite best efforts of a
totalitarian theocracy. Popular morale has deteriorated much faster than in the
"decadent" West against which the Khomeini revolution was directed.
"Iran is dying for a fight," I wrote in 2007 (Please see
Why Iran is dying for a fight, November 13, 2007.) in the literal sense
that its decline is so visible that some of its leaders think that they have
nothing to lose.
Their efforts to isolate Iran from the cultural degradation of the American
"great Satan" have produced social pathologies worse than those in any Western
country. With oil at barely one-fifth of its 2008 peak price, they will run out
of money some time in late 2009 or early 2010. Game theory would predict that
Iran's leaders will gamble on a strategic long shot. That is not a comforting
thought for Iran's neighbors.
Two indicators of Iranian morale are worth citing.
First, prostitution has become a career of choice among educated Iranian women.
On February 3, the Austrian daily Der Standard published the results of two
investigations conducted by the Tehran police, suppressed by the Iranian media.
"More than 90% of Tehran's prostitutes have passed the university entrance
exam, according to the results of one study, and more than 30% of them are
registered at a university or studying," reports Der Standard. "The study was
assigned to the Tehran Police Department and the Ministry of Health, and when
the results were tabulated in early January no local newspaper dared to so much
as mention them."
The Austrian newspaper added, "Eighty percent of the Tehran sex workers
maintained that they pursue this career voluntarily and temporarily. The
educated ones are waiting for better jobs. Those with university qualifications
intend to study later, and the ones who already are registered at university
mention the high tuition [fees] as their motive for prostitution ... they are
content with their occupation and do not consider it a sin according to Islamic
There is an extensive trade in poor Iranian women who are trafficked to the
Gulf states in huge numbers, as well as to Europe and Japan. "A nation is never
really beaten until it sells its women," I wrote in a 2006 study of Iranian
Prostitution as a response to poverty and abuse is one thing, but the results
of this new study reflect something quite different. The educated women of
Tehran choose prostitution in pursuit of upward mobility, as a way of sharing
in the oil-based potlatch that made Tehran the world's hottest real estate
market during 2006 and 2007.
A country is beaten when it sells its women, but it is damned when its women
sell themselves. The popular image of the Iranian sex trade portrays tearful
teenagers abused and cast out by impoverished parents. Such victims doubtless
abound, but the majority of Tehran's prostitutes are educated women seeking
Only in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism in 1990 did
educated women choose prostitution on a comparable scale, but under very
different circumstances. Russians went hungry during the early 1990s as the
Soviet economy dissolved and the currency collapsed. Today's Iranians suffer
from shortages, but the data suggest that Tehran's prostitutes are not so much
pushed into the trade by poverty as pulled into it by wealth.
A year ago I observed that prices for Tehran luxury apartments exceeded those
in Paris, as Iran's kleptocracy distributed the oil windfall to tens of
thousands of hangers-on of the revolution. $35 billion went missing from state
oil funds, opposition newspapers charged at the time. Corruption evidently has
made whores of Tehran's educated women. (Please see
Worst of times for Iran, June 24, 2008.)
Second, according to a recent report from the US Council on Foreign Relations,
"Iran serves as the major transport hub for opiates produced by [Afghanistan],
and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime estimates that Iran has as many as 1.7
million opiate addicts." That is, 5% of Iran's adult, non-elderly population of
35 million is addicted to opiates. That is an astonishing number, unseen since
the peak of Chinese addiction during the 19th century. The closest American
equivalent (from the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health) found that
119,000 Americans reported using heroin within the prior month, or less than
one-tenth of 1% of the non-elderly adult population.
Nineteenth-century China had comparable rates of opium addiction, after the
British won two wars for the right to push the drug down China's throat.
Post-communist Russia had comparable rates of prostitution, when people
actually went hungry. Iran's startling rates of opium addiction and
prostitution reflect popular demoralization, the implosion of an ancient
culture in its encounter with the modern world. These pathologies arose not
from poverty but wealth, or rather a sudden concentration of wealth in the
hands of the political class. No other country in modern history has evinced
this kind of demoralization.
For the majority of young Iranians, there is no way up, only a way out; 36% of
Iran's youth aged 15 to 29 years want to emigrate, according to yet another
unpublicized Iranian study, this time by the country's Education Ministry, Der
Standard adds. Only 32% find the existing social norms acceptable, while 63%
complain about unemployment, the social order or lack of money.
As I reported in the cited essay, the potlatch for the political class is
balanced by widespread shortages for ordinary Iranians. This winter, widespread
natural gas shortages left tens of thousands of households without heat.
The declining morale of the Iranian population helps make sense of its
galloping demographic decline. Academic demographers have tried to explain
collapsing fertility as a function of rising female literacy. The problem is
that the Iranian regime lies about literacy data, and has admitted as much
In a recent paper entitled "Education and the World's Most Raid Fertility
Decline in Iran , American and Iranian demographers observe:
analysis of the Iran 2006 census results shows a sensationally low fertility
level of 1.9 for the whole country and only 1.5 for the Tehran area (which has
about 8 million people) ... A decline in the TFR [total fertility rate] of more
than 5.0 in roughly two decades is a world record in fertility decline. This is
even more surprising to many observers when one considers that it happened in
one of the most Islamic societies. It forces the analyst to reconsider many of
the usual stereotypes about religious fertility differentials.
census points to a continued fall in fertility, even from today's extremely low
levels, the paper maintains.
Most remarkable is the collapse of rural fertility in tandem with urban
fertility, the paper adds:
The similarity of the transition in both
urban and rural areas is one the main features of the fertility transition in
Iran. There was a considerable gap between the fertility in rural and urban
areas, but the TFR in both rural and urban areas continued to decline by the
mid-1990s, and the gap has narrowed substantially. In 1980, the TFR in rural
areas was 8.4 while that of urban areas was 5.6. In other words, there was a
gap of 2.8 children between rural and urban areas. In 2006, the TFR in rural
and urban areas was 2.1 and 1.8, respectively (a difference of only 0.3
What the professors hoped to demonstrate is that as
rural literacy levels in Iran caught up with urban literacy levels, the
corresponding urban and rural fertility rates also converged. That is a
perfectly reasonable conjecture whose only flaw is that the data on which it is
founded were faked by the Iranian regime.
The Iranian government's official data claim literacy percentage levels in the
high 90s for urban women and in the high 80s for rural women. That cannot be
true, for Iran's Literacy Movement Organization admitted last year (according
to an Agence-France Presse report of May 8, 2008) that 9,450,000 Iranians are
illiterate of a population of 71 million (or an adult population of about 52
million). This suggests far higher rates of illiteracy than in the official
A better explanation of Iran's population implosion is that the country has
undergone an existential crisis comparable to encounters of Amazon or Inuit
tribes with modernity. Traditional society demands submission to the
collective. Once the external constraints are removed, its members can shift
from the most extreme forms of modesty to the other extreme of sexual license.
Khomeini's revolution attempted to retard the disintegration of Persian
society, but it appears to have accelerated the process.
Modernity implies choice, and the efforts of the Iranian mullahs to prolong the
strictures of traditional society appear to have backfired. The cause of Iran's
collapsing fertility is not literacy as such, but extreme pessimism about the
future and an endemic materialism that leads educated Iranian women to turn
their own sexuality into a salable commodity.
Theocracy subjects religion to a political test; it is hard for Iranians to
repudiate the regime and remain pious, for religious piety and support for
political Islam are inseparable, as a recent academic study documented from
survey data .
As in the decline of communism, what follows on the breakdown of a state
ideology is likely to be nihilism. Iran is a dying country, and it is very
difficult to have a rational dialogue with a nation all of whose available
choices terminate in oblivion.