Speed Reads


Who is poisoning Iran's schoolgirls, and why hasn't Iran's government stopped them?

Hundred of schoolgirls have been poisoned since Nov. 30, 2022, at schools in 10 to 15 cities across Iran, and Iran's government finally acknowledged the severity of the situation this week and pledged to investigate. There isn't an official number of students hit with what appears to be a toxic gas, but BBC Persian has established that at least 830 students, most of them schoolgirls, had been poisoned as of Sunday, while an Iranian lawmaker put the number at 1,200 students on Tuesday. 

Some boys have been poisoned, but almost all the incidents have been at all-female grade schools and high schools. No deaths have been reported. 

The poison attacks started in the city of Qom, but they have spread; girls from dozens of schools across the country were reported poisoned on Wednesday. Tehran has often downplayed the attacks, calling the poisonings "mild" or blaming the symptoms on "stress." Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri ordered an investigation last week, saying the rash of poisonings "indicates the possibility of intentional criminal actions."

Parents are angry and terrified, CNN reports, and students described watching classmates falling to the ground after smelling noxious odors.

The cause, motive, and perpetrators of the poisonings are unknown. Deputy Health Minister Younes Panahi said at a Feb. 26 press conference that it's "clear that some people wanted all schools, especially girls' schools, to be closed," according to state news agency IRNA, though he later retracted the statement and said he had been misquoted. 

Some Iranians have speculated that religious hardliners opposed to educating girls are behind the serial poisonings, while others see the attacks as retribution for the massive, student-led protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini. The American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project (CTP) on Wednesday assessed "with moderate confidence that the Iranian regime is tolerating a country-wide, coordinated campaign to poison Iranian schoolgirls." 

"Iranian officials, media outlets, and the clerical establishment expressed alarm" at the ongoing poison attacks on Thursday, CTP said early Friday. Iran has a robust security apparatus, but it's not clear "what meaningful action the regime has taken to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of ongoing attacks or secure Iranian educational facilities," and this "continued failure to respond in the ways that any normal, modern government would is almost inexplicable."

"Iran's government has a strong focus on education," and women make up "more than 50 percent of Iran's university students," The Washington Post notes, citing the World Bank. "Tehran has repeatedly pressed the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to overturn its ban on girls' education."