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Schoolgirls in Iran Suspected of Being Poisoned: Crisis Escalates

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The crisis of suspected poisoning targeting Iranian schoolgirls escalated Sunday, as authorities acknowledged that more than 50 schools had been infected in a wave of possible cases. The poisonings added to fear among parents as Tehran faced months of unrest.

It is not yet clear who or who is responsible since the alleged poisonings began in November in the Shiite holy city of Qom. Reports now indicate that schools in 21 of Iran’s 30 provinces have seen suspected cases, and girls’ schools have been the site of almost all of the incidents.

The attacks raised fears that other girls were apparently being poisoned simply for going to school. Girls’ education has not been challenged in the more than 40 years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran has called on the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to return girls and women to school.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said Saturday, without elaborating, that investigators had recovered “suspicious samples” during their investigations into the incidents, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. He called for calm among the public and accused the “enemy’s media terror” of creating more panic over the alleged poisonings.

However, it wasn’t until the poisonings gained international media attention that hardline President Ebrahim Raisi announced the opening of an investigation into the incidents on Wednesday.

Wahidi said that at least 52 schools have been affected by suspected poisonings. Iranian media reports put the number of schools at more than 60. At least one boy’s school was reportedly damaged.

Videos of parents and schoolgirls in emergency rooms with IVs in their arms have gone viral on social media. Making sense of the crisis remains difficult, given that Iran has detained nearly 100 journalists since protests began in September over the death of 22-year-old Mohsa Amini. She was arrested by the country’s morality police and later died.

The security forces’ crackdown on those protests has left at least 530 people dead and 19,700 detained, according to human rights activists in Iran.

Attacks on women have happened in the past in Iran, the most recent being a wave of acid attacks in 2014 around the city of Isfahan.

Speculation in Iran’s tightly controlled state media has focused on the possibility that exile groups or foreign powers may be behind the poisonings.

Iranian journalists, including Jamila Kadiyor, a prominent reformist former MP in Tehran’s Etelat newspaper, cited a supposed statement from a group calling itself Fedayin Velayat, which alleged that girls’ education was “considered forbidden” and threatened to “spread the poisoning of girls throughout Iran.” If girls’ schools remain open.

Iranian officials have not recognized a group called Fdayeen Velayat, which roughly translates into English as “guardianship lovers”. However, Kadivar’s mention of the threat in print comes because she remains influential in Iranian politics and has links with the theocratic ruling class. The head of Etilat newspaper is also appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Another possibility, Kadivar wrote on Saturday, is “mass hysteria.” There have been previous cases of this over the past decades, most recently in Afghanistan from 2009 through 2012. Then the World Health Organization wrote about so-called “mass mental illnesses” affecting hundreds of girls in schools across the country.

The World Health Organization wrote at the time that “reports of unpleasant odors that preceded the onset of symptoms gave credence to the mass poisoning theory.” However, investigations into the causes of these outbreaks have not yielded such evidence to date.

Iran has not acknowledged requesting assistance from the World Health Organization in its investigation. The WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

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