The Iranian crisis with the poisoning of schoolgirls is intensifying

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The crisis over the alleged poisoning of Iranian schoolgirls escalated on Sunday as authorities acknowledged that more than 50 schools had been affected by a wave of possible cases. The poisonings have further spread fear among parents as Iran faces months of unrest.

It remains unclear who or what is responsible since the alleged poisonings began in November in the Shiite holy city of Qom. Reports now show that schools in 21 of Iran’s 30 provinces have had suspected cases, with girls’ schools the site of almost all incidents.

The attacks raised fears that other girls could be poisoned, apparently just for going to school. In the more than 40 years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, education for girls has never been challenged. Iran has called on the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to allow girls and women to return to schools and universities.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said on Saturday, without elaborating, that investigators had found “suspicious samples” while investigating the incidents, state news agency IRNA reported. He called for calm among the public and blamed “hostile media terrorism” for fueling panic over the suspected poisonings.

But on Wednesday, hardline President Ebrahim Raisi announced an investigation into the incidents only after the poisonings attracted international media attention.

On Sunday, following a report read by Intelligence Minister Ismail Khatib, Raisi told the cabinet that the root of the poisonings needed to be uncovered and addressed. He described the alleged attacks as a “crime against humanity for creating anxiety among students and parents”.

Wahidi said at least 52 schools were affected by the suspected poisoning. Iranian media reported that the number of schools exceeded 60. At least one boys’ school was reportedly affected.

Videos of distraught parents and schoolgirls in emergency rooms with drips in their hands flooded social networks. Understanding the crisis remains difficult, given that nearly 100 journalists have been detained by Iran since protests began in September over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She was detained by the country’s morality police and later died.

According to Iranian human rights activists, at least 530 people died and 19,700 were detained as a result of the crackdown by security forces on these protests.

Children affected by the poisoning have reportedly complained of headaches, palpitations, feelings of lethargy or other inability to move. Some described the smell of tangerines, chlorine or cleaning products.

According to reports, at least 400 schoolchildren have fallen ill since November. Wahidi, the interior minister, said in a statement that the two girls remain in hospital due to underlying chronic conditions.

As news of the new attacks emerged on Sunday, videos of children complaining of leg pain, stomach pain and dizziness were posted on social media. State media mostly called it “hysterical reactions.”

No one has been reported in critical condition and no deaths have been reported since the outbreak.

Attacks on women have occurred in the past in Iran, most recently with a wave of acid attacks in 2014 around the city of Isfahan, which were believed to have been carried out by hardliners who attacked women for the way they dressed.

Speculation in Iran’s tightly controlled state media has focused on the possibility of exile groups or foreign powers behind the poisonings. This has also been repeatedly claimed during recent protests without evidence. In recent days, Germany’s foreign minister, a White House official and others have called on Iran to do more to protect the schoolgirls — what Iran’s foreign ministry called “crocodile tears.”

However, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that Iran “has continued to suffer attacks on women and girls for several months” amid recent protests.

“These poisonings are taking place in an environment where Iranian officials have gone unpunished for harassing, assaulting, raping, torturing and executing women who peacefully assert their freedom of religion or belief,” the commission’s Sharon Kleinbaum said in a statement.

Suspicion in Iran has fallen on possible hardliners in carrying out the alleged poisonings. Iranian journalists, including Jamileh Kadivar, a prominent former reformist lawmaker from Tehran’s Ettelaat newspaper, cited an alleged communique from a group calling itself Fidayeen Velayat, which allegedly said that educating girls was “considered forbidden” and threatened to “spread the poisoning of girls”. across Iran,” if girls’ schools remain open.

Iranian officials have not recognized any group called Fidayeen Velayat, which roughly translates to “Loyal Guardianship” in English. However, Kadivar’s mention of the threat in print is because she remains influential in Iranian politics and has ties to its theocratic ruling class. The head of Ettelaat newspaper is also appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Kadivar wrote on Saturday that another possibility is “mass hysteria”. There have been previous instances of this in recent decades, most recently in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012. Then the World Health Organization wrote about the so-called “mass psychogenic illness” affecting hundreds of girls in schools across the country.

“Reports of foul odors preceding the onset of symptoms support the theory of mass poisoning,” WHO wrote at the time. “However, the investigation into the causes of these outbreaks has not yet produced such evidence.”

Iran has not acknowledged asking the World Health Organization for help in the investigation. The WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

However, Kadivar also noted that hardliners in Iranian governments have in the past carried out so-called “chain murders” of activists and others in the 1990s. She also mentioned the 2002 killings by Islamic militants in the city of Kerman, when one victim was stoned to death and others were tied up and thrown into a pool, where they drowned. She described the squaddies as members of the Basij, a volunteer force in Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

“The common denominator of all of them is their extreme thinking, intellectual stagnation and rigid religious views that allowed them to commit such violent acts,” Kadivar wrote.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.

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