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 [1] – 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 Jungfrauelein:
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 queried:
He first will die, and then be buried.)

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).

As 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. [2]

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 almost unchanged. 

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 another location.

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.

[1] A new Jerusalem in sub-Saharan Africa
[2] 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