Iran’s chain poisonings: an act of terrorism, a crime or mass hysteria?

Fereshteh Sadeghi, the Cradle, March 09 2023 — Strange reports of the poisoning of Iranian schoolgirls come amidst a sustained western propaganda campaign for regime change against the Islamic Republic.

News about the ‘poisoning’ of female highschoolers across Iran has been in media headlines for a couple of weeks, with new incidents involving schoolgirls being reported every day.

The first episode of the mysterious poisoning series began in Iran’s shrine city of Qom on 30 November, where 18 students from a female high school for the arts were sent to a hospital with symptoms such as lethargy, dizziness, and weakness. At the time, a provincial education official quoted physicians as saying the girls had been poisoned.

The second incident took place about two weeks later, on 13 December when 51 students from another high school for the arts were rushed to hospitals with signs of dizziness, breathing problems, and nausea. Reports say they had complained of odors such as burnt electric wiring and rotten fruits.

By the end of January, five more cases had been reported – all from Qom, with only high school girls involved. The schoolgirls told media about smelling a stench, and said they didn’t know where it was coming from. They then experienced headaches, and nausea, or reported numbness in their legs.

Health officials who visited Qom said samples had been taken from patients and that all examinations pointed to mild poisoning. Another health official blamed Carbon Monoxide (CO2) as the cause of the poisoning.

But neither visits by officials and clerics nor speculations stopped these serial poisonings, which in late February spread to the western Iranian province of Lorestan and, this time, not only affected female high schools but also an elementary school and even a boys school.

The serial poisonings – or whatever they are – have now been reported in numerous provinces of Iran, among them Ardebil, Alborz, East and West Azerbaijan, Zanjan, Khouzestan, and Tehran, with thousands of girls complaining about nausea, headache, chest pain, and sometimes fainting when examined by doctors.

It is notable that in comparison with the hundreds of high school girls afflicted, the number of teachers or school staff reporting illness in these cases is few.

Three months on, despite investigations into the illnesses by the country’s health and security apparatuses, Iranian authorities have not found a convincing explanation to shed light on the cause behind this wave of toxification.

Media exploitation

As usual, when it comes to Iran, social media, as well as UK-based and US-based Persian-language television channels and Saudi-funded outlet Iran International, have drawn their own conclusions from the new reports, and have wildly speculated about the illness, despite having no evidence about its providence.

The foreign-based Persian-language media first pointed the finger of blame at the Islamic Republic and religious groups, accusing them of taking revenge on Iranian females for their participation in the so-called ‘feminist revolution,’ marked by protests and violent riots across the country.

They compared the Islamic Republic with the ruling Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, claiming that “groups orchestrated by the regime” are attacking high schools with chemical agents to stop female education and force girls to stay at home. These accusations were then widely spread as fact on social media by US-based and funded Iranian NGOs and activists.

For example, Alireza Nader of the Washington DC-based NUFDIran tweeted: “Poisoning women: the Islamic Republic in #Iran is no different than the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. #IranRevolution2023.”

The infamous US-funded Iranian activist Masih Alinejad tweeted: “Like Taliban and Boko Haram, now the Islamic Republic is poisoning schoolgirls in Iran. More than 1200 students are being hospitalized” in an act of “bioterror.”

Comparing the Islamic Republic with the Taliban is patently bizarre, given that Iran’s government has a long record of promoting education among women, whose share of education in the country has risen dramatically from 23 percent before the 1979 Revolution to 93 percent in 2022. In 2021, women made up 60 percent of university graduates and holders of higher education and 28 percent of academics.

The second phase of the blame-game was to scold Iranian authorities for their failure to capture the perpetrators of these events, if, in fact, there are any.

One chilling propaganda narrative was to characterize the poisoning incidents as “chemical attacks” and encourage parents to take to the streets in protest.

Opposition’s incitement to use chemicals

Supporters of the Islamic Republic, meanwhile, have accused the so-called “subversive opposition” – who seek to topple the Iranian rulers – of orchestrating the incidents in order to place blame on the Iranian government and religious groups. They went to lengths to show examples of social media opposition accounts instructing Iranians on how to organize strikes and shutter schools.

This 27 December tweet reads:

“A strategy to force schools and government offices into strike: Naphthalene is found in every corner shop and it’s cheap. Buy some naphthalene balls, crush them on the ground in a closed space in the school or a government office. Done! They’ll be shut down for at least a week.”

Another tweet advocates the same tactic: “Students can use Naphthalene to shut down schools by crushing a few naphthalene balls in the classroom or sport salon. Do it without anyone noticing.”

This post in October 2022 – a full month before the poisoning first manifested – from a Twitter account that has since been deleted, teaches young revolutionaries to “drop Amoxicillin capsules into classroom’s heaters” and explains, “it smells like an atomic bomb, no one can stay either in the classroom or in the school.”

Who are the perpetrators?

Anybody who has visited Iran will have noticed that cameras are omnipresent – on the streets, inside shops, and affixed on walls of private properties. This should mean that by examining closed-circuit cameras, authorities will be able to identify perpetrators of crime easily.

So three months after the first school illness incident, why have those responsible escaped the grip of law enforcement? And why are we no closer to learning the toxic source that has triggered symptoms in schoolgirls across the nation?

One lawmaker from the Iranian parliament’s Health Committee told the media that N2 (Nitrogen) is the main factor in the poisoning attacks. His claim was met with skepticism, given that nitrogen is part of the air we breathe. In contrast, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), in a piece on the reasons behind the serial poisonings, suggested ammonia as a possibility for the responsible agent.

But as months of ongoing investigation prove inconclusive, Iranian authorities are increasingly convinced that a combination of a toxification incident – as well as “mass hysteria” – are likely responsible for the serial symptomatic outbreaks.

Iran’s Interior Ministry issued a statement announcing that 250 such incidents have taken place across the country to date. It added that “less than five percent of patients showed symptoms caused by unknown irritant materials, which fortunately didn’t leave durable impacts.” This suggests that psychological stressors may have convinced some of the girls they had been targeted by poison.

The interior ministry further reveals that “more than 90 percent of female students who complained of symptoms were under stress” and warns that “it will deal with those whose adventurous actions led to an ambiance of anxiety at schools.”

Mass psychogenic illness, or ‘mass hysteria’

A brief online search on global “mass hysteria” cases, particularly in girls of school age, lends credence to the suspicions voiced by some Iranian officials.

Back in 1999, Coca Cola was blamed for fainting episodes at a school in Belgium. Sales were halted until symptoms spread to other schools in the country, and investigations produced no evidence of contamination by toxic substances. The conclusion was mass hysteria.

In 2009, the Afghan Taliban were widely blamed for poisoning girls at schools. Three years later, (yes, that is how long it took) the World Health Organization ruled that the symptoms displayed by the students – such as chest pain, dizziness, headaches, and fainting – were not caused by the Taliban but, in fact, stemmed from mass hysteria.

In 2012, mysterious tics and twitches were reported among more than a dozen young girls in Del Roy, New York. Physicians later attributed the symptoms to “mass psychogenic illness” – or mass hysteria.

In 2014, in the town of El Carmen de Bolivar in northern Colombia, 240 teenage girls were hospitalized with symptoms similar to those reported by Iranian schoolgirls. Locals initially suspected that the illness was caused by the side-effects of a vaccine, but later concluded that the young Colombian female students were instead afflicted with mass hysteria.

In a sweeping essay in The Guardian on the topic of “mass psychogenic illness,” filmmaker Carol Morley – who produced a 2015 movie called The Falling on this subject – writes about a subject she has researched for over a decade.

While many think “mass hysteria” is actually a cover-up for the failure of authorities to identify a health epidemic, Morley quotes President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Simon Wessely as saying that while this may be a common perception, “mass psychogenic illness should always be suspected when it selectively affects adolescent schoolgirls.”

A mix of criminal intent and hysteria

Back in Iran, however, authorities do not seem to suspect mass hysteria as the sole cause of the schoolgirls’ symptoms. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on 6 March asked the country’s government and security services to thoroughly investigate the toxification reports and punish “the perpetrators of this crime,” vowing that those behind the ‘poisonings’ would not be forgiven.

The head of Iran’s Judiciary also warned that “the perpetrators of this wave of toxication will be charged with “Corruption on Earth,” which in Iran is a capital crime punishable by death.

The Iranian Interior Ministry says a number of suspects are now under arrest in several provinces, three of whom are women. According to the ministry, they had been arrested in riots that engulfed Iran between September and October over the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody.

Iran’s Deputy Interior Minister has told state TV IRIB2 that their investigators have identified a number of female students who had also taken stink bombs into schools.

It seems the Iranians are concluding that there is a mix of criminal intent and hysteria in this case because they have not ruled out the use of toxic substances as a cause of the illnesses.

Ultimately, the comments by Interior Minister Ali Vahidi may, in fact, be the most accurate in representing these incidents: “Over 90 percent of the poisonings were not caused by external factors, and most came from stress and worries caused by the news.”

Whatever the outcome of the official investigation, one thing is certain: The medical symptoms – real or imagined – of Iranian schoolgirls have been thoroughly exploited by media campaigns to further vilify and undermine the Iranian state. Without a shred of evidence, the western campaigns characterizing the worrying incidents as “chemical attacks” have instead worsened the anxiety of young girls who think they are being poisoned – and making them ill.

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