The Sentinel-Record

Crisis over suspected Iran poisonings escalates


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A crisis over suspected poisonings targeting Iranian schoolgirl­s escalated Sunday as authoritie­s acknowledg­ed over 50 schools were struck in a wave of possible cases. The poisonings have spread further fear among parents as Iran has faced 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 suggest schools across 21 of Iran’s 30 provinces have seen suspected cases, with girls’ schools the site of nearly all the incidents.

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

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi on Saturday said, without elaboratin­g, that investigat­ors recovered “suspicious samples” in the course of their investigat­ions into the incidents, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. He called for calm among the public, while also accusing the “enemy’s media terrorism” of inciting more panic over the alleged poisonings.

However, it wasn’t until the poisonings received internatio­nal media attention that hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi announced an investigat­ion into the incidents on Wednesday.

On Sunday, Raisi told the Cabinet, following a report read by Intelligen­ce Minister

Ismail Khatib, that the root of the poisonings must be uncovered and confronted. He described the alleged attacks as a “crime against humanity for creating anxiety among student and parents.”

Vahidi said at least 52 schools had been affected by suspected poisonings. Iranian media reports have put the number of schools at over 60. At least one boy’s school reportedly has been affected.

Videos of upset parents and schoolgirl­s in emergency rooms with IVs in their arms have flooded social media. Making sense of the crisis remains challengin­g, given that nearly 100 journalist­s have been detained by Iran since the start of protests in September over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She had been detained by the country’s morality police and later died.

The security force crackdown on those protests has seen at least 530 people killed and 19,700 others detained, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran.

The children affected in the poisonings reportedly complained of headaches, heart palpitatio­ns, feeling lethargic or otherwise unable to move. Some described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning agents.

Reports suggest at least 400 schoolchil­dren have fallen ill since November. Vahidi, the interior minister, said in his statement that two girls remain in hospital because of underlying chronic conditions.

As more attacks were reported Sunday, videos were posted on social media showing children complainin­g about pain in the legs, abdomen and dizziness. State media have mainly referred to these as “hysteric reactions.”

Since the outbreak, no one was reported in critical condition and there have been no reports of fatalities.

Attacks on women have happened in the past in Iran, most recently with a wave of acid attacks in 2014 around the city of Isfahan, at the time believed to have been carried out by hard-liners targeting women for how they dressed.

Speculatio­n in Iran’s tightly controlled state media has focused on the possibilit­y of exile groups or foreign powers being behind the poisonings. That was also repeatedly alleged during the 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 schoolgirl­s — a concern Iran’s Foreign Ministry has dismissed as “crocodile tears.”

However, the U.S. Commission on Internatio­nal Religious Freedom noted that Iran has “continued to tolerate attacks against women and girls for months” amid the recent protests.

“These poisonings are occurring in an environmen­t where Iranian officials have impunity for the harassment, assault, rape, torture and execution of women peacefully asserting their freedom of religion or belief,” Sharon Kleinbaum of the commission said in a statement.

Suspicion in Iran has fallen on possible hard-liners for carrying out the suspected poisonings. Iranian journalist­s, including Jamileh Kadivar, a prominent former reformist lawmaker at Tehran’s Ettelaat newspaper, have cited a supposed communique from a group calling itself Fidayeen Velayat that purportedl­y said that girls’ education “is considered forbidden” and threatened to “spread the poisoning of girls throughout Iran” if girls’ schools remain open.

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