The reported attacks come at a sensitive time for Iran, which has been protesting for months following the death of Mahsa Amini in September following her arrest by the country’s vice squad.
Authorities have not named any suspects, but the attacks have raised fears that other girls could apparently be poisoned simply because they wanted to get an education – something that has never been seen in the more than 40 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. has been challenged. Iran itself has also appealed to the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to help girls and women go back to school.
The first cases emerged in late November in Qom, some 125 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Iran’s capital, Tehran. There, in a heartland of Shiite theologians and pilgrims, students at Noor Yazdanshahr Conservatory fell ill in November. In December they fell ill again.
Other cases followed, with children complaining of headaches, palpitations, listlessness or otherwise being unable to move. Some described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning products.
Initially, authorities did not connect the cases. It is winter in Iran, where temperatures often drop below freezing at night. Many schools are heated by natural gas, leading to speculation that it could be carbon monoxide poisoning affecting the girls. The country’s education minister initially dismissed the reports as “rumors”.
But the affected schools initially only taught young women, raising suspicions that it was not a coincidence. At least one case followed in Tehran, with others in Qom and Boroujerd. At least one boys’ school has also been targeted.
Slowly, officials began to take the claims seriously. Iran’s attorney general has ordered an investigation, saying “there are possibilities for deliberate criminal acts”. Iran’s intelligence ministry is also reportedly investigating.
On Sunday, the state-run Iranian news agency IRNA submitted multiple stories to officials acknowledging the magnitude of the crisis.
“After several poisonings of students in Qom schools, it appeared that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed,” IRNA quoted Younes Panahi, a deputy health minister as saying.
Health Ministry spokesman Pedram Pakaieen said the poisoning was not from a virus or microbe. Neither has been elaborated further.
Ali Reza Monadi, a member of the national parliament who sits on the education committee, described the poisonings as “intentional”.
The “existence of the devil’s will to prevent girls from getting an education is a grave danger and is considered very bad news,” he said, according to IRNA. “We must try to find roots” of this.
According to a report by Shargh, a reformist news website in Tehran, parents have already taken their students out of classes, prompting the closure of some schools in Qom in recent weeks.
The poisonings come as it remains difficult to get verifiable information out of Iran given the crackdown on all dissent stemming from the protests and internet slowdowns put in place by the government. At least 95 journalists have been arrested by authorities since the protests began, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Overall, the security forces’ crackdown has killed at least 530 people and detained 19,700 others, according to human rights activists in Iran.
Attacks against women have occurred in Iran in the past, most recently with a spate of acid attacks in 2014 around Isfahan, believed to have been carried out at the time by hardliners who targeted women because of their clothing. But even in the chaos surrounding the Islamic Revolution, no one attacked schoolgirls for attending classes.
Jamileh Kadivar, a prominent former reformist MP and journalist, wrote in Tehran’s Ettelaat newspaper that as many as 400 students have fallen ill from the poisonings.
She warned that “subversive opposition groups” could be behind the attacks. However, she also pointed to the possibility of “domestic extremists” who want to “replace the Islamic Republic with a caliphate or a Taliban-like Islamic emirate.”
She cited an alleged communiqué from a group calling itself Fidayeen Velayat that reportedly said “the study of girls is considered haram” and threatened to “spread the poisoning of girls all over Iran” if girls’ schools remain open.
Iranian officials have not recognized any group by the name of Fidayeen Velayat, which roughly translates into English as “Devotees of the Guardianship”. However, Kadivar’s mention of the threat is in print because she remains influential in Iranian politics and has ties to the theocratic ruling class. The head of the Ettelaat newspaper is also appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Another prominent reformist politician, Azar Mansouri, also linked the suspected poisoning attacks to hard-line groups, citing the Isfahan acid attacks.
“We said the acid attacks were staged. You said: ‘You are distorting public opinion!’” Mansouri wrote online. “If the perpetrators of the attacks had been identified and punished then, a group of reactionaries would not have attacked our innocent girls in the schools today.”
Activists also worry that this could be a disturbing new trend in the country.
“This is very fundamentalist thinking that is emerging in society,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “We have no idea how widespread this group is, but the fact that they have been able to carry it out with such impunity is so disturbing.”