TEHRAN, Iran -- Having promoted a baby boom, Iran's religious leaders are now trying to curb it by discreetly touting vasectomies.
In 1979, when they seized power, the clerics called on Iranians to have more children to become soldiers in defense of their country and Islam. The population swelled and the authorities rolled back by launching a family planning campaign that has had notable success.
But it's not enough, says the government. About 60 percent of the population is under 25, and an economy that needs to create 700,000 jobs a year can only manage 250,000, according to government reports.
Which explains why, after prayers at a Tehran mosque, Hasan Doroudi sits down for a discreet chat with two fortyish men who have more than a half-dozen children each.
"Prosperity is not necessarily to have more children and money but to be more knowledgeable," the soft-spoken cleric tells them. "Instead of several children, we can have two and do everything in our power to educate them as useful future managers."
"I would say, 'Let's have vasectomies to avoid unwanted children and ensure prosperity for the ones we have,"' he said.
Doroudi is one of four clerics promoting vasectomies in Tehran. Others work in towns outside the capital, but for the most part the campaign is run by non-clerics.
After the 1979 revolution, Iran's birthrate reached a peak of 3.6 per couple. By the late 1980s it was down to 2.7. Now, media reports say it's 1.6. But with so many young Iranians reaching the stage of building their own families, another baby boom may be coming.
In today's Iran, many couples who heeded the call to multiply now wish they hadn't.
"I wish I had only two or three children. Now, it's too late to rectify those mistakes," said Aboulfazal Mousiqidan, a 58-year-old father of seven.
Officials say at least 12 million of Iran's population of 70 million are living below the poverty line. Many Tehran schools have to operate two shifts. Unemployment is officially said to be 15 percent, though private experts say it's about 30 percent.
The statistics make unpleasant reading for the Islamic establishment that overthrew the monarchy and promised all Iranians a share in their country's oil wealth.
The government backs the population control campaign by providing all family planning services for free. Ration coupons for the needy to buy basics like cooking oil and sugar cover only three children per family.
Birth control pills, condoms, IUDs, hysterectomies and contraceptive implants for women are all permitted. Iran has its own condom factory, which claims to be the biggest producer of condoms in the Middle East and supplies 90 percent of Iran's needs. Birth control pills are displayed in abundance in pharmacies.
Yet nothing can be advertised on state television or radio because any public mention of sexual matters is taboo. Mahdi Sedqazar, a pioneer in Iranian vasectomy clinics, says he has had complaints about the sign on his government-sponsored clinic in Tehran: "No-Scalpel Vasectomy, Easy and Quick."
Operations at 10 years
Vasectomies first became available in Iran 10 years ago, and 675 doctors nationwide are trained to perform them. Each year some 30,000 Iranians have vasectomies, more than 5,000 of them in Sedqazar's clinic.
"Clerics are becoming our best messengers," said Sedqazar.
Some Iranians maintain that children are God's gift and that all contraception therefore is wrong. The clerics explain that in fact, Islam doesn't ban contraceptives.
"Having a vasectomy or using a condom is not banned for the purpose of avoiding unwanted children or preventing individual or social harm," Ayatollah Hussein Mousavi Tabrizi, a leading cleric, said in a telephone interview.
Moreover, the wife's agreement is needed, and she has the right to "the full joy of sex," he said.
At his clinic, after obtaining a man's free and informed consent, Sedqazar clamps the sperm ducts in a painless 15-minute operation under local anesthetic. He tells the patients the ducts can be restored to full working order in about 80 percent of the cases.
Abbas Mosayebian, 45, was in Sedqazar's operating room while his wife was briefed by a doctor in the next room. He came out vasectomized and smiling.
The couple have three children and didn't want a fourth, he explained.