The International Community Analyzes Poisonings in Iran

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Policy Briefs Program

March 7, 2023

On Wednesday, March 1, at least 26 Iranian schoolgirls became sick, most suffering from respiratory problems and fatigue, “in what has been reported to be a wave of poisonings, possibly with toxic gas.” Cases such as this began to emerge in November, and more than 1,000 Iranian students have been affected, primarily those at single-sex girls’ schools. While Iran faces international pressure to swiftly enact protection measures for female students, there exists uncertainty regarding the perpetrators of the attacks. These developments have incited global attention as this crisis emerges amid international outcry for the killing of Mahsa Amini by Iranian forces and subsequential protest crackdowns by the regime.  

While the attacks have been acknowledged, the Interior Ministry did not disclose details about the perpetrators and utilized substances. Written in Ahram Online, “authorities have acknowledged suspected attacks at more than 50 schools across 21 of Iran’s 30 provinces since November. Iran’s Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said over the weekend that ‘suspicious samples’ had been gathered by investigators, without elaborating. He called on the public to remain calm and accused unnamed enemies of inciting fear to undermine the Islamic Republic. Vahidi said at least 52 schools had been affected by suspected poisonings, while Iranian media reports have put the number of schools at over 60. At least one boy’s school reportedly has been affected.”

On Sunday, Deputy Health Minister Younes Panahi specified that the female students had been poisoned by ‘publicly available’ chemicals. Quoted in Israel National News, “‘it became evident that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed down,’ the deputy health minister said. In response, Iran’s prosecutor general announced that a criminal investigation would take place, citing the possibility of ‘criminal and premeditated acts.’” 

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei spoke publicly for the first time on the poisonings on Monday and urged harsh punishment for the perpetrators. Tasnim News Agency quoted Khamenei’s remarks: “This is a big and unforgivable crime, and if anyone is involved in this incident, the agents and the masterminds must be severely punished…Everyone should know that if anyone is identified and convicted as the perpetrator of this crime, there will be no forgiveness for them, because they must be severely punished to become an example for others.” 

Global leaders, such as Germany’s foreign minister and a White House official, have have urged Iranian officials to do more to protect Iranian school girls. Expressed in the Gulf News, given the months-long protests on women’s rights in Iran, “the US 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.” 

Concern has been expanded to international organizations. Written in Al Jazeera, the United Nations human rights office in Geneva called on Friday for a transparent investigation into the suspected attacks and countries including Germany and the United States have voiced concern.”

The Iranian regime expressed discontent with foreign countries and has purported the attacks have been carried out by external threats. Explained in Tehran Times, “Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the Foreign Minister of Iran, criticized several Western officials on Twitter for how they handled the suspected poisoning of Iranian girl students. Amir Abdollahian noted that such authorities’ response is a component of the continuous hybrid war being waged by the adversary. ‘The interventionist reaction from some Western officials to the suspicious poisoning of Iranian girl students is part of the enemy’s ongoing hybrid war. The great Iranian nation knows very well the crocodile tears!’ he pointed out.” 

However, not everyone believes the attacks are being carried out by foreign adversaries to undermine Iran. Sourced from Al Arabiya: “One Iranian official said the poisonings could be an attempt to force the closure of girls’ schools in the country. Some Iranians, including prominent dissidents, have accused the regime of being responsible for the attacks. They believe that the poisonings, which come more than five months after protests that spread across Iran following Mahsa Amini’s death, are deliberate and a form of ‘revenge’ against schoolgirls for participating in the protests.”

Popular protests within Iran have also increased pressure on the regime, as well as highlighted mounting discontent. Gulf Daily News profiled the latest protests: “A gathering of parents outside an Education Ministry building in western Tehran on Saturday to protest over the illnesses turned into an anti-government demonstration…‘Basij, Guards, you are our Daesh,’ protesters chanted, likening the Revolutionary Guards and other security forces to the Islamic State group. Similar protests were held in two other areas in Tehran and other cities including Isfahan and Rasht, according to unverified videos.”

Iran dissented against these ‘hasty reactions’ and accusations that the attacks were conducted by the regime. Arab News reports: Iran said “on Friday it was investigating the causes of the incidents. ‘It is one of the immediate priorities of Iran’s government to pursue this issue as quickly as possible and provide documented information to resolve the families’ concerns and to hold accountable the perpetrators and the causes,’ Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani told state media.”
Illustrated elsewhere in Haaretz, Jamileh Kadivar, a Iranian politician and former member of parliament, “raised the possibility of ‘domestic extremists’ who ‘aim to replace the Islamic Republic with a caliphate or a Taliban-type Islamic emirate.’ She cited a supposed communique from a group calling itself Fidayeen Velayat that purportedly said, ‘the study of girls is considered haram’ and threatened to ‘spread the poisoning of girls throughout Iran’ if girls’ schools remain open.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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