The Iranian regime acknowledged that girls were poisoned in more than 50 schools in the country

A poisoning crisis against Iranian schoolchildren intensified on Sunday when authorities acknowledged that more than 50 schools were attacked in a wave of possible cases. The poisonings have further sown fear among parents as Tehran has faced months of unrest.

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

The attacks have raised fears that other girls could be poisoned apparently just for going to school.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said on Saturday without elaborating that investigators had recovered “suspicious samples” in the course of their investigations into the incidents, according to state news agency IRNA. He called for calm among the citizens, while accusing the “media terrorism of the enemy” to further incite panic over the alleged poisonings.

A young woman lies in hospital after reports of poisoning at an unspecified location in Iran. WANA/Reuters TV via REUTERS (REUTERS TV/)

However, it was not until the poisonings received international media attention that the hardline president, Ebrahim Raisiannounced an investigation into the incidents on Wednesday.

Vahidi said that at least 52 schools had been affected by alleged poisonings. Iranian media reports have put the number of schools in over 60. According to reports, at least one children’s school has been affected.

Videos of upset parents and schoolgirls in ERs with IVs in their arms have flooded social media.. Understanding the crisis remains a challenge, 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 moral police and then died.

The repression of the security forces against these protests has led to the death of at least 530 people and the arrest of another 19,700according to Human Rights Activists in Iran.

Attacks on women have occurred in the past in Iran, most recently with a 2014 wave of acid attacks around Isfahan, at the time believed to have been carried out by hardliners attacking women for the way they dress.

In recent days, Germany’s foreign minister, a White House official and others have called on Iran to do more to protect school-age girls, a concern Iran’s foreign ministry has dismissed as “crocodile tears”.

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

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

Speculation in Iran's tightly controlled state media has focused on the possibility that exile groups or foreign powers are behind the poisonings.  Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
Speculation in Iran’s tightly controlled state media has focused on the possibility that exile groups or foreign powers are behind the poisonings. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS (WANA NEWS AGENCY/)

Suspicion in Iran has fallen on possible hardliners for carrying out the alleged poisonings. Iranian journalists, including Jamileh Kadivar, a prominent reform-minded former lawmaker from Tehran’s Ettelaat newspaper, have cited an alleged statement by a group calling itself Fidayeen Velayat which supposedly said that girls’ education “is considered prohibited” and threatened to “spread the poisoning of girls” throughout Iran” if girls’ schools remain open.

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

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

“Reports of foul odors preceding the onset of symptoms have given credence to the mass poisoning theory,” the WHO wrote at the time. “However, investigations into the causes of these outbreaks have yielded no such evidence so far”.

Protest against poisoning of school girls in Iran
A man holds a banner depicting a girl wearing a gas mask in Iran during a demonstration. Iranian citizens residing in Spain, protest in the Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid, against the hundreds of cases of girls poisoned in schools that have been reported since last November in Iran. (Photo by Diego Radames / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

Iran has not acknowledged asking the world health body for help in its investigation. The WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

However, Kadivar also pointed out that hardline Iranian governments in the past carried out the so-called “chain murders” of activists and others in the 1990s. He also referred to the 2002 killings by Islamic vigilantes in the city of Kerman, in which one victim was stoned to death and others were tied up and thrown into a swimming pool, where they drowned. She described those vigilantes 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 vision that allowed them to commit such violent actions,” Kadivar wrote.

(with information from AP)

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