Iranian officials have only acknowledged them in the past few weeks and have not provided details on who might have been behind the attacks or what chemicals, if any, were used. Unlike neighboring Afghanistan, Iran has no history of religious extremists targeting women’s education.
“If the poisoning of students is proven, the perpetrators of this crime should be sentenced to the death penalty and there will be no amnesty for them,” Khamenei said, according to the state news agency IRNA.
Authorities have confirmed suspected attacks on more than 50 schools in 21 of Iran’s 30 provinces since November.
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 unnamed enemies of inciting fear to undermine the Islamic Republic.
Vahidi said at least 52 schools were affected by suspected poisoning, while Iranian media reports put the number of schools at over 60. At least one boys’ school was affected.
Videos of angry parents and schoolgirls in emergency rooms with IVs in their arms have flooded social media.
Iran has imposed severe restrictions on independent media since nationwide protests erupted in September, making it difficult to determine the nature and extent of the alleged poisoning.
The protests were sparked by the death of a young woman who was arrested by the vice squad for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code. Religious hardliners in Iran have been known to attack women they dress indecently in public. But even at the height of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, women and girls continued to attend schools and universities.
The children affected by the poisoning have reportedly complained of headaches, palpitations, lethargy or other inability to move. Some described the smell of tangerines, chlorine or detergents.
At least 400 school children have reportedly fallen ill since November. Vahidi, the interior minister, said in his statement that two girls remain hospitalized with underlying chronic conditions. No deaths were reported.
As more attacks were reported on Sunday, videos were posted on social media showing children complaining of pain in their legs, abdomen and dizziness. State media have referred to this mainly as “hysterical reactions”.
The World Health Organization documented a similar phenomenon in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, when hundreds of girls across the country complained of strange smells and poisoning. No evidence was found to support the suspicion and the WHO said they appeared to be dealing with “mass psychogenic illnesses”.