A Toxic Mystery
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Someone has been poisoning girls in schools in Iran since November last year.
“Victims described smelling peculiar odors, such as citrus, rotting fish, or chlorine, before experiencing symptoms that included vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue,” wrote the New Yorker magazine.
Iranian officials initially admitted that it was happening. Then they changed their tune. They claimed the girls were making up their symptoms or were over-stressed. They also arrested a journalist in Qom who was investigating the poisonings.
More than 60 schools have reported poisonings, however, the Associated Press wrote. The timing of the attacks coincides, incidentally, with civil unrest over protests that have been mostly ongoing in Iran since September after a 22-year-old girl, Mahsa Amini, died while in police custody for wearing her hijab, an Islamic headscarf, improperly.
Similar poisonings have also occurred in Afghanistan, where hardliners in the Taliban-backed government have resisted educating girls since they took control of the country after the withdrawal of American forces in 2021, CNN added. It would be easy to surmise that radicals within Iran committed the poisonings in their country.
However, United Nations experts discovered that poisonings that occurred between 2012 and 2016 in Afghanistan were most likely due to “mass psychogenic illness” – a mass delusion, potentially, in other words – because they found no evidence of chemicals or toxins, wrote Macquarie University Law School lecturer Shireen Daft in the Conversation.
An Iranian analyst at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington DC, argued for an alternative theory. The lack of urgency among security forces and their failure to find a culprit despite having deployed spy cameras throughout major cities, the suppression of reporting on the incidents, including by families and medical staff, and other signs suggest that officials within the Iranian regime might be to blame. The poisonings might be designed to scare students who have been at the forefront of protests against the regime, the analyst theorized.
The student protests are weighing heavily upon Iranian leaders’ minds. Iranian security forces have been rounding up and arresting activists in the run-up to the first anniversary of Amini’s death, for example, to forestall unrest, according to NBC News.
The Iranian regime’s openness to negotiating a prisoner release with the US in exchange for $6 billion in frozen energy revenues could be a sign of the Iranian leadership’s wish to garner some cash and defuse tensions with its greatest international adversary, Al-Monitor added.
In the meantime, analysts say, it’s likely the poisonings will continue.