Iran is dying, and no one knows it better than Vladimir Putin, who worked successfully to raise Russia’s fertility rate, unlike Iran’s theocrats, who have failed to persuade Iranians to have children.
Russia’s relationship to the only Shi’ite state of significance is less an alliance than a dalliance, motivated by Moscow’s fear of Sunni radicalism and its desire to establish a strategic beachhead in the Middle East.
But Iran is a depreciating asset whose value will disappear within a 20-year horizon. The question is not whether, but at what price Russia will trade it away.
A few salient facts clarify the picture.
First, Iran may well become the first country in the world that will get old before it gets rich. Its fertility rate (the number of live births over the lifetime of an average woman) fell from 7 in 1979 to perhaps 1.7 today.
That produced an enormous generation of people now in their 20s to 40s who have very few children. As this generation ages, the proportion of Iranians over the age of 60 will soar from about 7% today to around 40% by mid-century.
Other countries face an aging crisis, but with ten times the per capita income: Iran’s nominal GDP per capita is only US$5,300, compared with US$56,000 for the United States, for example.No poor country can care for an elderly population comprising two-fifths of the total. Iran will undergo an economic disaster unprecedented in history. That is baked in the cake, and nothing its government can do will make much different at this late stage.
Iranians know their world is coming to an end and behave as if there is no tomorrow (which, in their case, there isn’t). As I reported last year:
The number of marriages has fallen by 20% since 2012. “In Iran, the customary marriage age range is 20-34 for men and 15-29 for women … 46% of men and 48% of women in those age ranges remain unmarried,” according to the national statistics agency. So-called white marriage, or cohabitation out of wedlock, is so common and controversial that the regime banned a women’s magazine [in 2015] for reporting on it.
Alongside the decline in marriage, a quarter of Iran’s married couples report that they cannot conceive children. A possible factor aggravating the infertility could be epidemic rates of untreated venereal disease, according to Iranian researchers, pointing to a deeper shift in social customs. Iran’s government believes that the Shia practice of “temporary marriage” is the culprit.
As I wrote in 2015, “Figures released by the Iranian National Statistics Office indicate that Sigha — temporary partnership — is on the rise, while fewer and fewer people are marrying in the conventional way. According to the deputy justice minister, Sigha rose by 28% in 2012 and by a further 10% in the first half of this year. Sociologist Mustafa Aghlima told the ISNA news agency: ‘The increase in Sigha at the cost of fewer proper marriages means the collapse of family life and its cultural values.’”
Social pathologies have metastasized under Iran’s clerical regime on a scale unlike anything observed in the decadent West. For the time being, the childless men of Iran’s last big generation provide cannon fodder for its foreign adventures. The supply of military-age men will fall drastically in 10 years (from about 7.8 million today to about 5.7 million in 2025).
That makes Iran exceptionally dangerous in the relative near-term. As a nation, it is demographically doomed, and has all the more reason to undertake military adventures while it still can.
From Russia’s vantage point, it is a useful ally of convenience. One in seven Russians is Muslim, but 90% of its Muslims are Sunni; it can watch the Iranians grind up the Sunni populations adjacent to its southern flank knowing that the one Shi’ite power in the region is close to its best-used-by-date. At a 20-year horizon, it has nothing to fear from an exhausted and aging Iran.
China’s perspective is similar: China’s Muslims are almost exclusively Sunni, and it can watch with indifference as Shi’ite Iran makes war on Sunnis in its periphery.
The Obama administration’s attempt to strike a deal with Iran gave Moscow all the more incentive to support Tehran: if America was courting Iran, Russia would offer it more and better.
What might persuade Putin to ditch the troublesome Persians prematurely? As President Trump has suggested, that is the sort of question that cannot be answered except by some very difficult negotiations.
I sketched the outlines of a possible deal with Russia 10 years ago as follows:
My proposal is simple: Russia’s help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the “Orange” revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia’s assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia’s existential requirements in the near abroad.
Things are trickier today. Russia may have had a real grievance over the West’s support for the Maidan coup of February 2014, and a legitimate claim on Crimea, but it violated international law in seizing Crimea by force and instigating a civil war in the Donbass. The West cannot pretend such things never happened. The Sunni jihad meanwhile has mushroomed with the de facto complicity of the Obama administration, as then-Defense Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn warned repeatedly. Now General Flynn is Trump’s National Security Adviser.
There are numerous unknowns. One is Iran’s political stability. Millions of Iranians protested against rigged elections in 2009, and the Obama Administration did nothing. Iran’s despairing, childless generation of young adults may be one of the world’s least contented populations. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the rate of mosque attendance in Iran is only 2% to 3%. It is likely that there are fewer Muslims in Iran today than there were Communists in Russia in 1988. If the United States gave covert backing to Iranian dissidents and the odd MANPAD to the Kurds in Iran’s northwest and the Balochis in the southeast, things might look quite different.
These sorts of things are for the professionals to sort out, to be sure. But there are any number of things the United States might to do heat up the Iranian potato in Putin’s hands, and persuade him to drop it in return for some other form of consideration. From the outside, one can only speculate as to the kind of conversation that might ensue. I indulged in some speculation last August:
The next conversation between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin might go something like this: “Look, Vladimir, you say you’re worried about Sunni terrorists destabilizing Russia. We’re going to kill all the terrorists or hire people to kill them for us. We’re not going to arm jihadists to make trouble for you like we did in Afghanistan during the Cold War. We leave you alone, and you get out of our hair. You get to keep your naval station in Syria, and the Alawites get to have their own state in the northwest. Give Basher Assad a villa in Crimea and put in someone else to replace him – anyone you like. The Sunni areas of Syria will become a separate enclave, along with enclaves for the Druze.”
And Trump might add: “We’re taking care of the Sunni terrorists. Now you help us take care of the Iranians, or we’ll do it ourselves, and you won’t like that. You can either work together with us and we tell the Iranians to shut down their centrifuges and their ballistic missile program, or we’ll bomb it. You don’t want us to make the S-300 missiles you sold Iran look like junk – that’s bad for your arms business.
“As for Ukraine: let them vote on partition. If the eastern half votes to join Russia, you got it. If not, you stay the hell out of it.”
This line of thought, as noted, is just speculation. Washington’s move is to give Putin good reason to sell the Persians down the river. That they will be sold is sad fate. The only question is at what price.
David P. Goldman is a longtime contributor to Asia Times. The opinions he expresses are his own and do not reflect the editorial viewpoint of the publication.