“We’re getting reports from Iran almost every day about more schoolgirls being poisoned,” says women’s activist Fariba Balouch, who has been living in exile in London for the past three years. “Parents are desperate and don’t know who they can turn to,” she told DW. “This week, parents from the city of Chabahar contacted us. It’s frightening that it’s not stopping.”
The port city of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman has a population of 200,000, and is seldom in the news. Now there are reports that schoolgirls have been poisoned there, too.
“The country should be in a state of pleasant anticipation right now, but there’s almost no sense of that,” says a 41-year-old mother from Tehran. “Everyone is worried and angry.” She is referring to the Iranian New Year festival, Nowruz, which takes place in less than two weeks. The new year in Iran starts with the spring, on March 20. The 13-day Nowruz festival is the most important in the Iranian calendar, comparable to Christmas in the West. Schools close for the two-week holiday.
However, according to the Tehran mother: “Many parents have already stopped sending their children to school. The principal of my daughter’s elementary school is understanding. She’s a mother herself.”
No information from the authorities
Other parents have emphasised in informal conversations with DW how stressful they find the current situation — partly because authorities have not released any information about the substances used to poison the schoolgirls. Iranian media say there have been more than 2,500 cases of poisoning in schools to date. Many of the victims have had to be hospitalized.
Photos are circulating online of schoolgirls with runny noses and dilated pupils in hospital emergency rooms. Doctors and experts in Iran are said to have been warned not to comment. The cleric Mohammad Reza Nourollahi from the city of Qom, where the first mysterious poisonings were reported in November 2022, has criticized this decision. In an interview with the Shia News Agency Shafaqna earlier this week, he called on the authorities to allow experts to talk about the cases, saying, “Let parents know what’s happening.”
Experts in other countries are also unable to make any valid statements about the poisonings because of the lack of freely available information. Carsten Schleh, a German toxicologist, stressed this when approached by DW for comment. He pointed out that in many reports the poisoned schoolgirls are said to have mentioned a rotten smell.
“When I read about the rotten smell, I immediately thought of hydrogen sulphide,” he said. “It smells of rotten eggs, even in low concentrations, and a small amount can cause respiratory problems, headaches, and so on.”
Possible “nocebo effect”
These are also symptoms that victims have described when speaking to Iranian state media. Schleh believes these descriptions suggest the possibility of a so-called nocebo effect: “That is: The schoolgirls anticipate an adverse effect, which they then suffer. It’s a self-reinforcing system. So you could have hydrogen sulphide, as a strong-smelling chemical, amplified by the psyche, and that way you could spread fear and terror with relatively little damage to health. But, as I say, this is all pure speculation until I have more information.”
As to who could manufacture a chemical like this, the toxicologist says: “In principle, it’s relatively easy to produce hydrogen sulphide in a laboratory. What you would have would be a very impure product, but the smell and the initial effects would be there.”
The strongest effect right now is the spread of fear and uncertainty in society. Iran’s religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declared that “whoever is behind this must be severely punished.” On Monday, he described the poisonings as an “unforgivable crime.”
Iran’s chief justice, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, announced that those arrested in connection with the poisonings would be accused of the crime of “corruption on earth.” If convicted, they would then face the death penalty.
Are the perpetrators being protected?
Now, Iran’s Fars news agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guard, has reported the first arrests. Suspects in five provinces are said to have been detained. Fars cited the deputy interior minister Majid Mirahmadi, who is responsible for the security forces. Speaking on state television, Mirahmadi said the arrests had been made on the basis of “intelligence service findings.” He provided no details about the identities of those arrested, the circumstances of their arrest, or their suspected role in the poisonings. What he did say was: “Some of them, however, were not ‘enemies of God’ and were released after interrogation and explanatory discussions.”
Many Iranians see this statement as evidence that the perpetrators are from conservative religious circles, well-connected within the security apparatus, and backed by powerful ayatollahs. For more than three months, the security services denied everything. Instead, journalists who reported on the incidents were arrested. It was only one month ago that authorities admitted these mysterious poisonings could be targeted attacks, aimed at excluding girls from school education.
There were protests this week in several cities around the country. Parents, relatives and teachers joined the demonstrations. They demanded greater security for schoolchildren, and accused authorities of not taking sufficient action over the poisonings. A number of protesters were arrested.
This article has been translated from German
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