HomeUS News updateWhat's behind the crisis in Iran over the suspected poisoning of schoolgirls?

What’s behind the crisis in Iran over the suspected poisoning of schoolgirls?

Students gasp and cough for air as they stumble from school to an ambulance. Parents protesting in the capital Tehran. And now a supreme leader is demanding severe punishment for the “unforgivable crime”.

The crisis over a wave of suspected poisonings affecting thousands of schoolgirls in Iran escalated this week after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made his first public comments on the issue, followed by the first arrests.

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

NBC News takes a look at what we know.

How big is the crisis?

At least 2,000 people have reported symptoms, according to the latest NBC News analysis of state and semi-state media in Iran, though numbers are fluctuating and clear reporting from Iran is difficult to pin down. However, a Member of Parliament investigating the incidents suggested that, although this has not been confirmed, the number of possible cases could be as high as 5,000.

The first case was reported in late November in the Shiite holy city of Qom in the center of the Islamic republic, but has since spread to dozens of provinces across the country, according to local media.

The details have been difficult to pin down – only fueling fear in a country already rocked by months of turmoil and mass unrest – but videos posted on social media and verified by NBC News provide a glimpse of the situation inside Iran. Let’s glimpse.

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

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

A video shows schoolgirls coughing in Nasimshahr, a city in northwest Iran, while one is being carried into an ambulance with fellow students.
A video shows schoolgirls coughing in Nasimshahr, a city in northwest Iran, while one is being carried into an ambulance with fellow students.Twitter

No deaths have been reported, but the situation has sparked growing concern among parents, even as protests intensify.

In a video verified by NBC News, a group of women can be seen protesting with placards outside an education ministry building in Tehran.

What have the officials said?

The suspected poisoning was only recently publicly acknowledged by Iranian officials, who have offered little indication of who or what may be behind the crisis.

Hardline President Ibrahim Raisi said last week that he had ordered an investigation into the incidents, following comments from government officials and a series of reports in local media.

Raisi told the cabinet on Sunday that the alleged incidents were “an inhuman crime” aimed at “intimidating students, our dear children and their parents,” according to state news agency IRNA.

Iran’s supreme leader said on Monday that if confirmed as intentional, the suspected poisoning would be “a great and unforgivable crime”.

State TV quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying, “The guilty must face the harshest punishment.”

Iran’s Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said over the weekend that “suspicious samples” had been collected by investigators, without elaborating. He called on the public to remain calm and accused unknown enemies of using “media terrorism” to instill fear and undermine the country’s clerical establishment.

On Tuesday, Vahidi said that while the investigation was ongoing, “several responsible people involved in the disturbances in the schools” had been arrested, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency. He did not identify those arrested or give a possible motive.

Who can be responsible?

Many believe that the Iranian government has been slow to act against mysterious incidents that seem to threaten girls’ education in the country.

After downplaying the issue earlier, Irani Authorities said last week that the suspected poisonings could be a deliberate attack to prevent the girls from getting an education.

According to Iranian state broadcaster IRIB, “some people wanted all schools to be closed, especially girls’ schools.”

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

The most recent example was the 2014 wave of acid attacks around the central city of Isfahan, which are believed to have been women targeted at the time by religious fanatics based on how they dressed.

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

Some prominent critics of Iran’s government have said, without providing evidence, that the suspected poisoning may have been an act of “revenge” for the recent unrest that broke out across the country when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was detained by morality police. The latter had died after accusing him 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,” Iranian activist and journalist Masih Alinejad tweeted on Monday.

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

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

“The possibility that girls in Iran are being poisoned just for trying to get an education is shameful, it’s unacceptable,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told a news briefing on Monday. ” He called for an independent investigation to determine whether the poisoning was protest-related, which would mean it falls under the mandate of the UN fact-finding mission on Iran.

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

Commission member Sharon Kleinbaum said “the United States and like-minded governments should press Iran’s government to take full responsibility for stopping the poisoning” and “hold the perpetrators accountable in accordance with international law.”

What could be the causes of the reported symptoms?

With little indication from inside Iran about what may have been behind the events, it has been difficult to determine the exact details of what happened.

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

However, given strained relations with the West, “it doesn’t look like Iran is willing to expose the incident to the world. And it doesn’t look like they will ask the United Nations to help with the investigation,” he told NBC News. told.

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

“It could be something like sulfur dioxide, which is a toxic industrial chemical used through a variety of industrial processes. There is also a suggestion that it could be nitrogen dioxide,” de Breton-Gordon said as a possible cause. said about. But those chemicals “are usually stored in steel containers in liquefied form or gaseous form. So just opening the bowels of those cylinders will spread it over a relatively large area,” he said.

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

But what if most reported cases didn’t involve chemicals?

Iranian state media have at times referred to the wave of cases as a “hysteric reaction” among schoolgirls, pointing to another possibility that some experts have suggested may have played at least a part in the crisis. There are – especially in the context of government action nationwide protests and the absence of many boys reporting similar symptoms.

Deputy health minister Saeed Karimi said on Monday that some students had been exposed “through inhalation to a provocative material”, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency, but added that less than 10% of cases had been investigated. Had happened. Others were suffering from anxiety or stress, he was reported as saying.

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

NBC News has not independently verified those numbers.

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

No evidence was found to support the suspicions, and the World Health Organization stated that it appeared to be a “mass psychiatric illness”.



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