The first known incident of schoolgirl poisoning occurred on November 30 in the city of Qom, when about 50 students fell ill and were taken to the hospital.
According to the media, the girls reported a pungent smell of rotten tangerines, chlorine, or cleaning agents, and then suffered from headaches, dizziness, respiratory problems and nausea. Some of them even experienced temporary paralysis of their limbs.
Although the girls were released after a few days, an 11-year-old girl named Fatemeh Rezai reportedly died from the poisoning, although her family and the doctor who treated her said that she had died from “an acute infection and was not poisoned.”
Iranian media reported that the schoolgirl poisoning in Qom was followed by at least 58 schools in eight provinces and in the capital city of Tehran, and the cities of Borujerd and Ardebi. Dozens of girls were hospitalized as well as some boys and teachers who were also affected by the toxic substance used in the attacks.
On Saturday, the Reuters news agency reported that sickness affected more than 30 schools in at least 10 of Iran’s 31 provinces and that dozens of students were taken to hospitals for treatment.
At first, the Iranian regime tried to dismiss and downplay the incidents. Still, as the frequency of the attacks increased, it realized that it could no longer conceal the fact that what happened to girls’ schools across the country was not accidental.
The United Nations Human Rights office in Geneva called on Friday for a transparent investigation into suspected attacks and several countries, including Germany and the United States, have voiced concern.
Iranian Deputy Education Minister Younes Panahi admitted that the attacks were intentional but did not involve military-grade but publicly available chemicals.
“It became evident that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed down,” he said, later claiming that his remarks had been misunderstood.
Last Friday, President Ebrahim Raisi claimed that the poisoning was the work of Iran’s enemies, who seek to cause chaos in the country and try to instil fear, despair and insecurity among parents and students.
Raisi appointed the Interior Ministry to oversee the investigations, while the prosecutor general announced the opening of a criminal investigation and added that available evidence indicates criminal and premeditated acts.
According to a report in Al Jazeera, Reza Karimi Saleh, deputy governor of the Pardis suburb of Tehran, said that a fuel tanker found next to the school in the suburb was attacked with a toxic substance was also spotted in the attacks against schools in Qom. The driver of the tanker has been arrested.
Many Iranians fear that Islamist hardliners are behind the attacks as their aim is to terrorize the girls and make their families stop sending them to school. Such methods were used by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2010 and more recently by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, which in 2014 kidnapped 276 schoolgirls.
Alireza Monadi, a lawmaker and the head of Parliament’s education committee, said on Tuesday that the schools had been deliberately attacked and that 30 toxicologists in the Health Ministry had identified the toxins found in schools as nitrogen gas.
Monadi and the deputy Health minister, Younes Panahi, said the motive appeared to be to prevent girls from attending schools, raising alarm about the possible infiltration of Islamic extremist groups.
Many people claim that the attacks are the work of elements of the clerical establishment itself and are a payback for the widespread demonstrations held after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, who died while in custody after her arrest by the morality police for the crime …of not wearing her headscarf properly.
The death of Mahsa Amini last September sparked repeated mass protests in dozens of Iranian cities and towns all over the country by both women and men who vent their anger at the repressive clerical regime that imposes innumerable restrictions on its citizens and women in particular.
Social media showed thousands of videos of women and schoolgirls ripping their headscarves and chanting slogans against the Founder of the Iranian Theocracy Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Raisi and other senior clerics.
Under the slogan: “Woman, Life, Freedom,” girls held numerous protests in their schools and removed their mandatory headscarves. Later on, tens of thousands of people joined these protests, chanting “Death to the Dictator”. These massive protests undoubtedly pose the biggest opposition challenge to the Tehran Theocracy in years.
The hard-line Iranian news agency Fars reported that the schoolgirl poisonings were a conspiracy by the opposition based outside the country to provoke “the silent majority” who did not participate in the street protests but could join a new wave of demonstrations calling for a revolution.
However, several exiled Iranians point out the fact that dozens of schools were attacked in so many cities and so many provinces and say that this could not have been the handiwork of a small organization of Islamic extremists, but of a branch of the Iranian state, which is carrying out a “false flag” operation, “revenging” schoolgirls for the anti-government protests.
One cannot say if the true culprits of these attacks will be revealed in the end, but the fact remains that the different explanations given by Iranian officials create confusion, intensifying the justified suspicion and lack of trust of ordinary Iranians towards the government of their country.
Senior cleric Mohammad Javad Tabatabai-Borujerdi was quoted by the Iranian media as saying: “Officials are giving contradictory statements … one says it is intentional, another says it is security-linked and another official blames it on schools’ heating systems…Such statements increase people’s mistrust in the government.”