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An unlikely model for family planning

While some Islamic societies prefer large families, Iran's approach isearning recognition.

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The painted green arrow on the ground starts in the parking lot, then leads inside one of Iran's largest family-planning clinics.

The arrow has already been worn down by the feet of 20,000 men seeking vasectomies. "It's so that clients can find us without asking, if they're embarrassed," says Fereydoun Forouhary, director of the clinic.

Though it is commonly believed in many Islamic societies that large families are good, Iran has taken a decidedly different approach. Its public embrace of family planning has been so determined that - as the global population officially surged to more than 6 billion last month - the United Nations considers Iran a model for Muslim nations worldwide.

"These mullahs are often seen as fundamentalist," says a longtime Iranian observer who asked not to be named. "But on family planning they have been very flexible, progressive, and pragmatic."

Iran's transformation has been one of extremes. During the early days of the Islamic revolution 20 years ago, babies were sought to bolster the ranks of "soldiers for Islam." By 1986, the population had jumped in a decade from 33 million to nearly 50 million. But when the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was over and Iran's economy took a significant downturn, the country faced serious challenges in supporting this number of people. Job shortages were particularly acute.

Presented with these facts, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - the Shiite Muslim spiritual leader who led the revolution - permitted debate on the subject of birth control.

"Our government was young, and we were involved in the war," says Dr. Forouhary about the early maximum-baby policy. "But when it was finished, we had time to think. Khomeini always spoke of being up to date, and he and [present spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei have issued fatwas [religious edicts]. They prefer the quality of life and not the quantity of the population."

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