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Source: NBC News

Mar 8, 2023

Official suggestions that the mysterious incidents may be a deliberate effort to prevent girls from seeking an education have sparked growing public unease and questions.

By Aina J. Khan, Caroline Radnofsky and Bryan Gallion

Students gasping for air and coughing while being led stumbling out of school into ambulances. Worried parents protesting in the capital, Tehran. And now a supreme leader calling for severe punishment for what would be an “unforgivable crime.”

The crisis over a wave of suspected poisonings that have hit thousands of schoolgirls across Iran escalated further this week, with the first arrests reported after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made his first public comments on the issue.

Official suggestions that the mysterious incidents may be a deliberate effort to prevent girls from seeking an education have sparked growing public unease as well as questions over who or what might be behind them. They have also caused global alarm in light of the unrest that swept the country in recent months.

How big is the crisis?

At least 2,000 people have reported symptoms, according to the latest NBC News analysis of state and semiofficial media in Iran, though the numbers are fluid and clear reporting from Iran is difficult. However, one member of parliament tasked with investigating the incidents suggested that, although not confirmed, the number of potential cases could be as high as 5,000.

The first cases were reported in late November in the Shiite holy city of Qom at the heart of the Islamic Republic, according to local media, but have since spread to dozens of provinces across the country.

Details have been difficult to pin down — only fueling fears in a country already hit by months of tumult and mass unrest — but videos posted to social media and verified by NBC News give a glimpse of the situation inside Iran.

In one, girls cough profusely while being escorted out of school and into an ambulance, while in another a teenager is slumped on her knees as other students frantically try to help. It is not clear what exactly they are suffering from.

State TV has also aired footage of girls struggling to breathe in hospital beds. NBC News has not verified the local reports.

No deaths have been reported but the situation has led to growing concern, even sparking protests from parents and teachers.

In videos verified by NBC News, a group of women can be seen protesting with placards outside education ministry buildings in Tehran and a province just west of the capital.

What have officials said?

The suspected poisonings were only recently acknowledged in public by Iranian officials, who have provided little indication as to who or what may be behind the crisis.

After a series of comments from government officials and reports in local media, hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi said last week that he had ordered an investigation into the incidents.

On Sunday, Raisi told the Cabinet that the alleged incidents were "an inhumane crime" that was "aimed at intimidating the students, our dear children, and their parents," according to the state-run news agency IRNA.

Iran’s supreme leader said Monday that if confirmed as deliberate, the suspected poisonings would amount to "a great and unforgivable crime.”

"The culprits must face the toughest of punishments,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying by state TV, urging authorities to seriously pursue the matter and suggesting any culprits should face the death penalty.

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 using “media terrorism” to incite fear and undermine the country's clerical establishment.

On Tuesday, Vahidi said that while investigations were ongoing, "a number of responsible people involved in disturbances in schools" had been arrested, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency. He did not identify those arrested or give a possible motive.

Who might be responsible?

Many believe the Iranian government has been slow to act against the mysterious incidents that appear to be a threat to girls' education in the country.

After previously downplaying the issue, Iranian officials said last week that the suspected poisonings may have been deliberate attacks designed to prevent girls from seeking an education.

"Some people wanted all schools to be closed, especially girls’ schools,” said Iran's Deputy Health Minister, Younes Panahi, according to Iranian state broadcaster IRIB.

Some have drawn parallels with past attacks on women in Iran.

The most recent example was a wave of acid attacks around the central city of Isfahan 2014, which at the time were believed to have been carried out by religious hard-liners targeting women for how they dressed.

If the suspected poisonings are deliberate acts driven by a similar motive, it would represent a major escalation in a country where education for girls has never seriously been challenged in the four decades since the Islamic Revolution.

Some prominent critics of Iran’s government have said without providing evidence that the recent suspected poisonings may be an act of “revenge” for the unrest that erupted across the country when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after being detained by the morality police, who accused her of breaking Iran’s strict dress code.

Female students were at the forefront of the subsequent protests that rocked the Islamic Republic, as they stood up to strict sartorial codes by removing their headscarves and confronting officials.

“This is a government crime against children that is unprecedented in history,” the Iranian activist and journalist Masih Alinejad tweeted Monday.

Iranian authorities have not directly responded to the claims, but have accused “enemies” of using the attacks to undermine the regime. 

The suspected poisonings prompted international condemnation and calls for a thorough and open investigation, including from the United States and United Nations.

“The possibility that girls in Iran are being possibly poisoned simply for trying to get an education is shameful, it’s unacceptable,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a news briefing Monday. She called for an independent probe to determine if the poisonings were related to the protests, which would mean it falls within the mandate of the U.N. fact-finding mission on Iran.

In a statement, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said it was “outraged“ over the reports of poisonings.

“The United States and like-minded governments must pressure Iran’s government to take full responsibility for stopping the poisonings and“ hold perpetrators accountable in a manner consistent with international law,” said commission member Sharon Kleinbaum.

What could be causing the reported symptoms?

With little indication from within Iran over what might be behind the incidents, it has been difficult to determine the precise details of what has happened.

“The number one challenge is actually getting samples from an attack or an incident like this, and getting them properly verified,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the United Kingdom’s and NATO’s chemical, biological and nuclear defense forces.

Given tense relations with the West, however, “it doesn’t seem that Iran is keen to expose this incident to the world. And it seems highly unlikely they’ll ask" the U.N. to help investigate, he told NBC News.

Some Iranian officials have said that nitrogen gas appeared during testing at affected schools, while reported symptoms have ranged from headaches and dizziness to girls feeling heart palpitations and pain in their legs.

“It could be something like sulphur dioxide, which is a toxic industrial chemical used in via a variety of industrial processes. There’s also been a suggestion that it might be nitrogen dioxide,” de Bretton-Gordon said of the potential cause. But those chemicals “are usually stored in sort of steel containers in a liquefied form or a gaseous form. So simply just opening the bowels of those cylinders would spread it over a relatively large area,” he said.

Taking blood samples from affected girls may offer the best hope of some answers, he said, but otherwise any conclusions may prove elusive. "If you’re looking for environmental samples, in the dust, or the dirt or in concrete, then that can be very fleeting, especially in a place where it’s hot,” de Bretton-Gordon added.

But what if most reported cases don't involve chemicals at all?

Iranian state media has at times referred to the wave of cases as “hysteric reactions” among the schoolgirls, hinting at another possibility that some experts have suggested may at least be playing a part in the crisis — especially given the context of the government crackdown on the nationwide protests and the absence of many boys reporting similar symptoms.

Deputy Health Minister Saeed Karimi said Monday that some students had been exposed to “a stimulating material through inhalation,” according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency, but said that this had likely affected fewer than 10% of cases that were investigated. Other suffered from anxiety or stress, he was reported as saying.

The news agency also reported that the interior ministry said fewer than 5% had been exposed to “stimulant chemicals” and that others had reported symptoms “due to anxiety and stress.”

NBC News has not independently verified those numbers.

A similar phenomenon was reported in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, with hundreds of girls across the country complaining of strange smells and poisoning, according to the Associated Press.

No evidence was found to support the suspicions, and the World Health Organization said it appeared to be “mass psychogenic illnesses.”

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