Background unclear: A wave of poisoning at girls' schools shakes Iran - parents in fear, government at a loss

Hundreds of new cases of unexplained poisoning have been reported at girls' schools in Iran.

Background unclear: A wave of poisoning at girls' schools shakes Iran - parents in fear, government at a loss

Hundreds of new cases of unexplained poisoning have been reported at girls' schools in Iran. As the Iranian newspaper "Shargh" reported on Thursday, more than 400 schoolgirls at eleven schools in the northern Iranian city of Ardabil alone have been affected. On Wednesday, Iranian media reported poisoning attacks at a total of ten girls' schools, seven in the northwest city of Ardabil and three in the capital Tehran.

According to an Iranian MP on Wednesday, almost 1,200 schoolgirls with shortness of breath had to be treated by a doctor, 800 of them alone from poisoning in the city of Qom, south of Tehran. The substances used against the girls in Qom apparently contained traces of nitrogen. In some cases, the girls' health is said to be critical.

Poisonings at girls' schools in Iran have been reported again and again for about three months, with authorities suspecting an attempt to exclude girls from schooling. The first cases were already reported at the end of November, when the protests in Iran were in full swing. Schoolgirls complained of dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath. Initially only a few girls' schools in the Shiite stronghold of Qom were affected, but in the past few days more and more cases have become known in other parts of the country.

The latest wave of poisoning has the country in a state of excitement. Parents and activists reacted with outrage and anger, and there is still no official statement from the government. Activists compared those responsible for the poisoning to the radical Islamic Taliban in Afghanistan and the jihadist militia Boko Haram in Nigeria, who fundamentally reject education for girls. The authorities have long assumed targeted poison attacks. The background is largely unclear.

After the Ministry of Health initially dealt with the cases, the arch-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi also got involved. For months, his government has been under pressure alongside the clerical leadership in the country. The women's protests last fall plunged the political leadership into the worst crisis in decades, and the difficult economic situation is also a source of great concern for many.

President Raisi announced on his website that from now on Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi would provide regular updates on the status of the mysterious incidents. He entrusted Vahidi "to allay the fears of the relatives," it said.

Parliament discussed the poisoning cases in a session on Tuesday. According to the Irna news agency, Iranian Health Minister Bahram Ejnollahi also took part. Irna quoted the speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, as saying that both in Qom and in Boroujerd there were "poisoning of schoolgirls".

Vice President Massumeh Ebtekar on Tuesday deplored the "repeated crime of poisoning girls". She called on the authorities to "put an end to the misogynistic fanatics once and for all".

The suspected poisoning would be investigated, Iranian police chief Ahmed-Resa Radan told the Tasnim news agency on Tuesday. It is the priority of the police to get to the bottom of the causes, he said. "Until then, we will not judge whether it is a premeditated act or not." No one has been arrested so far, but suspects have been identified.

A government official had previously said the alleged premeditated attacks were believed to be aimed at forcing girls' schools to close. According to Irna, Deputy Health Minister Junes Panahi said after the poisoning cases in Qom it was found "that some people wanted all schools, especially girls' schools, to be closed".

According to media reports, parents had demanded an explanation from the authorities at a demonstration in front of the governor's office in Qom in mid-February. Government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi then said that the secret service and the Ministry of Education were in the process of determining the causes of the poisoning. The authorities are assuming planned acts. Then last week, Attorney General Mohammed Jafar Montaseri ordered a judicial investigation.