Family planning programmes initiated in the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1966 met with limited success. Following the 1986 census family planning was considered a priority and was supported by the country's leaders. Appropriate strategies based on the principles of health promotion led to an increase in the contraceptive prevalence rate among married women from 49.0% in 1989 to 73.8% in 2006. This paper reviews the family planning programmes in the Islamic Republic of Iran and their achievements during the last 4 decades and discusses the principles of health promotion and theories of behaviour change which may explain these achievements. Successful strategies included: creation of a supportive environment, reorientation of family planning services, expanding of coverage of family planning services, training skilled personnel, providing free contraceptives as well as vasectomy and tubectomy services, involvement of volunteers and nongovernmental organizations and promotion of male participation.