By Michelle Moghtader
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's supreme leader has called for a population increase, in an edict likely to restrict access to contraception that critics fear could damage women's rights and public health.
In his 14-point decree, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said increasing Iran's 76 million-strong population would "strengthen national identity" and counter "undesirable aspects of Western lifestyles".
"Given the importance of population size in sovereign might and economic progress ... firm, quick and efficient steps must be taken to offset the steep fall in birth rate of recent years," he wrote in the edict published on his website.
Khamenei's order - which must be applied by all three branches of government - in effect replaces the "Fewer Kids, Better Life" motto adopted in the late 1980s when contraception was made widely available.
Since then the birth rate has fallen from 3.2 percent in 1986 to 1.22 percent now, according to the CIA World Factbook. At current fertility rates, Iran's median age is expected to increase from 28 in 2013 to 40 by 2030, according to U.N. data.
But many Iranians are concerned about policy shifts to boost the population, something proposed for years by conservatives, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who favored nearly doubling the population to 120 million, encouraging women to stay home and devote their time to child rearing.
Reformist Iranians fear the fertility campaign could undermine the position of women in a country where 60 percent of university students are female but only 12.4 percent of the work force is, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran.
There are also fears about sexual health.
"In order to fight AIDS, our only route is to distribute and teach people to use condoms," Dr Minoo Moharez, head of the AIDS Research Centre at Tehran University told Shargh daily.
"If, based on some policies, the distribution of condoms in the country is faced with limitations, it will cause horrible events, the increase of AIDS patients from unprotected sex will be compounded," she added.
Fertility is one of many issues that divides conservatives and reformists in Iran where President Hassan Rouhani has called for as easing of social restrictions.
Rouhani has said little on birth control, focusing his attention on seeking a deal with world powers on Iran's nuclear program in order to escape economic sanctions.
Farzaneh Roudi of the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based think-tank, said that if Tehran is concerned about an aging workforce, it could employ more of its women.
"The government could tap the women labor force, many of whom do not work in the formal economy," she said, arguing that the political drive for a baby boom was unlikely to succeed.
"It's hard for me to imagine that people will have more children because Khamenei wants them to," Roudi said.
(Additional reporting By Mehrdad Balali; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Robin Pomeroy)