TEHRAN — Jalal Shahpasand, a tall, husky restaurateur, waited until after dinner and the chaperons had gone off to watch television. After courting "the lovely Jila" for a year, he was ready. So he took her hand and softly asked, "Will you marry me?" Jila nodded.
Javad Goudarzi, a handsome plastics worker with a thick mustache, chose the traditional route to marriage: family arrangement. When he met 19-year-old Theahereh the first time, he decided that she was the girl for him. A week later, the proposal was relayed from his parents to her aunt and then to Theahereh. Back through the same route, she accepted.
And so the two couples ended up in a whitewashed health clinic classroom last week, waiting for something even more important in Iran than a marriage license: a slip certifying that they had passed the nation's family planning course.
No one gets married without it.
The course is just one aspect of an ambitious campaign to stop what had become one of the world's biggest population surges--one that had almost doubled the number of Iranians since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, from 34 million to 63 million today.
The numbers shot up after the new religious government in the late '70s urged Iranian women to breed an Islamic generation. Aided by a lowering of the marriage age to 9, they more than complied.
By the early 1980s, the population growth rate had reached 3.2%, according to Iran's Health Ministry. International agencies pegged the rate at up to 3.9%, among the world's highest. The U.S. rate is 0.9%.
Either way, the government--aware of the costs of such a large population--is spending millions of dollars a generation later to reverse the trend.
It seems to be working. When the instructor asked how many children each couple plans to have, Jalal and Jila, who together have seven siblings, said, "One." Javad and Theahereh, who have 13 siblings, said, "Two."
Nationwide, the population growth rate is now down to 1.41%, Iran says. And the fertility rate has dropped to such a staggering degree that wary demographic experts are helping to expand the database and sampling techniques.
Country's Campaign Wins Global Praise
Nonetheless, Iran's campaign has won worldwide praise. Population groups cite it as a model for developing nations and the Islamic bloc. And Washington-based Population Action International bestowed its highest commendation on Iran's program.
Its strength may be its imaginative initiatives.
Abbas Farsi, a diminutive truck driver with the first strands of silver in his hair, showed up early at the "No-Scalpel Vasectomy" clinic in south Tehran last week for the 10-minute procedure--and the 30-minute video showing a vasectomy and answering the most-asked questions, plus personal counseling.
"We have two children, and we want to give them a good education, so it was time to make sure we didn't have any more," he said.
Farsi's procedure was one of about 3,500 annually at the facility, which in turn is one of dozens of permanent and mobile clinics in Iran. All are free.
In fact, from Norplant to condoms, IUDs to the pill, and including both male and female sterilization, birth-control products are free to all takers in another aspect of Iran's program.
In the process, sex has come off the list of taboo subjects in the Islamic Republic.
In health rooms set up in all factories, in schoolrooms, in mosques during Population Week in July, in widespread media coverage and in a blanket advertising campaign that includes billboards and water towers, family planning is widely discussed.
The ruling clerics have even issued fatwas, or religious edicts, approving it.
Among them is one from Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"When wisdom dictates that you do not need more children," he proclaimed, "a vasectomy is permissible."
Theahereh's father, who escorted the young couple to the class, volunteered that he had a vasectomy in 1996. At the clinic, where a green line was originally painted from the front door to the vasectomy counseling room so embarrassed men would not have to ask directions, several men discussed their sex lives without hesitation.
"Vasectomy is much better than withdrawal," said Mohsen Rezaie, a 29-year-old bus company employee and father of two who had come in for a checkup. "And it's improved rather than hurt our relations, as I feared."
Chief surgeon Fereidoun Forouhary added: "It liberates sex life.
"We give each man the two tiny pieces . . . cut out [through a tiny abdominal puncture] and ask him to show them to his wife, who will be very happy and love him even more because he has done this for her health."
Vasectomies a Hot Topic
About 40% of all vasectomies now are referrals from family members or friends who had the procedure, indicating that the subject is a hot topic, said Forouhary, who keeps a photo album of well-known patients who bring in referrals.
One is a turbaned Muslim cleric who escorts a couple of friends or colleagues weekly.