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Who Is Poisoning Iran’s Schoolgirls?

A rising number of schools have been targeted with suspected poisonings, as protesters return to the streets.

A woman holds a sign with an image depicting an Iranian girl wearing a gas mask during a protest in Madrid, Spain on March 4. Photo: Diego Radamés/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
A woman holds a sign with an image depicting an Iranian girl wearing a gas mask during a protest in Madrid, Spain on March 4. Photo: Diego Radamés/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A terrifying crisis is unfolding in Iran, where an increasing number of schools, most of them girls’ schools, have been targeted in a wave of suspected attacks using some kind of poison gas. The mysterious incidents began in November in the aftermath of — and possibly in response to — unprecedented nationwide protests against the country’s theocratic regime and its denial of basic rights for women. In the past week, there have been dozens of newly reported incidents each day at schools across the country, according to videos and firsthand accounts shared with activists and journalists. The suspected poisonings have already sickened at least 1,200 schoolgirls, and it’s still not clear who is behind it all.

Though Iran’s supreme leader finally acknowledged and condemned the attacks on Monday, many activists suspect the regime is itself directly or tacitly responsible, particularly in light of the violent crackdown on the largely women-led protests in the fall. Outrage over the school incidents and the government’s inadequate response is prompting fresh protests — which the regime is already attempting to quell.

Most of the suspected attacks have targeted girls’ schools. The first incidents were reported in the holy Shi’ite Muslim city of Qom in November, but they have since spread throughout the country. Videos shared by Iranians with activist groups and foreign journalists capture harrowing scenes of students being loaded into ambulances outside schools, panicked parents, and kids in emergency rooms who appear to be having trouble breathing.

“Twenty-five provinces and approximately 230 schools have been affected, and more than 5,000 schoolgirls and boys poisoned,” Mohammad-Hassan Asafari, a lawmaker and member of Iran’s parliamentary fact-finding committee on the incidents, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency on Monday. Other government officials and state-run media reports had claimed, as of last week, that more than 1,200 schoolgirls have been sickened following incidents at 60 or more schools across 15 provinces. Iranian human rights groups say more than 7,000 students have been affected.

The reported symptoms of those who have fallen ill have include respiratory problems, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea. Some of the affected students have also reported smelling a range of strange odors prior to becoming sick. There have been no confirmed deaths as a result of the illnesses, and it appears that most of the students affected have recovered quickly. Chemical-weapons experts outside Iran have noted that the symptoms certainly could be the result of exposure to chemical or biological agents, but most have emphasized that there isn’t enough information to conclude what those agents could have been. Some have also noted that the symptoms could have a sociogenic origin — caused by stress rather than poison or some other irritant or biological factor. On Tuesday, Iran’s health ministry released a report prepared by a scientific committee investigating the incidents which concluded that “some of the students were exposed to an irritant substance that is mainly inhaled.”

As is typically the case with news from inside Iran, where free speech and journalism are severely restricted and government statements are often self-serving and unreliable, most of the details of these incidents remain impossible to confirm. What is clear is that Iran’s regime, which was already faced with a number of other challenges, has struggled to handle the growing crisis. IranWire reports that from the start, Iranian authorities have offered limited information as well as misleading and contradictory statements about the incidents. Some in the regime have suggested the attacks were the work of Islamic fundamentalists who oppose educating women. Others have blamed the attacks and subsequent public outrage on protesters, foreign governments, and foreign news organizations.

Public anger is still rising. Teachers, parents, and other Iranians staged demonstrations in at least 17 cities on Tuesday, including in front the country’s education ministry in Tehran. Some of the protests were met with crackdowns by local security forces.

On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei — who has repeatedly called for the persecution of Iranian women and girls who reject the Islamic regime’s modesty laws — condemned the suspected poisonings of Iranian schoolgirls on Monday as an “unforgivable crime” and vowed to execute anyone found responsible for carrying them out.

Also on Monday, the regime announced that Iranian security forces had arrested Qom News editor Ali Portabatabaei, who was one of the country’s first journalists to cover the suspected poisonings. On Tuesday, the regime announced that court cases had been filed against several more journalists and others who have reported critically on, or called attention to, the alleged attacks. Iran’s government regularly goes after journalists who spotlight problems inside the country; it imprisoned two female journalists who last year broke the story of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the country’s so-called morality police after she was detained for allegedly failing to properly cover her hair as mandated by law. Amini’s beating and death sparked a historic protest movement, during which some of the bravest and most memorable demonstrations were led by schoolgirls. Nearly 100 Iranian journalists and countless protesters were arrested, and hundreds of people were killed by security forces during the brutal crackdown that followed.

On Tuesday, Iran’s deputy interior minister announced on state television that arrests had been made in five provinces related to the school poisonings — but he offered no specifics, other than to say that some of the people were “not enemies.” An armed forces spokesperson claimed five people had been arrested, and accused them of working for foreign agents and carrying out attacks to “create insecurity and chaos.” There were more suspected poisonings reported at Iranian schools on Tuesday, as well.

This post has been updated throughout.

Who Is Poisoning Iran’s Schoolgirls?