New clampdown on students amid protests over ‘poisonings’
Hundreds have been hospitalised after complaining of symptoms that included nausea, headaches, coughing, breathing difficulties, heart palpitations, numbness and hand or leg pain after eating in school or university canteens since November last year.
Mohammed Hassan Asefari, a lawmaker investigating the poisonings, told the semi-official ISNA News Agency that as many as 5,000 students have complained of sickness at 230 schools across 25 provinces. Other officials put the number at over 7,000 students.
No one has claimed responsibility so far for the wave of illnesses that some officials – including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – have characterised as “poisonings”, but Deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi told Iranian state TV on 7 March that several people were arrested in five different provinces over the poisonings, without providing any details.
The ministry said their motives were “mischief or adventurism” and were hostile towards the government.
“Despite these poisonings going on for several months now, there remains a lack of clear information about the circumstances of the attacks and the chemicals used,” Afshin Shahi, senior lecturer in Middle East politics and international relations at Keele University, United Kingdom, told University World News.
“There is still kind of a degree of ambiguity and I think that’s quite deliberate. The state is not providing a lot of insight and information about these people that they claim they have arrested. The lack of media freedom in Iran hasn’t helped,” Shahi said.
The poisonings have galvanised university students into a new spate of campus protests, which had died down this year after previously continuing unbroken between September 2022 and January this year, and which included violent clashes with security forces.
Protesting students demanded information and action from the authorities on the poisonings.
The latest campus protests have led to dozens of protesting students being summoned by university disciplinary committees, and in several dozen cases reported this month, students being barred from campus.
According to the Iran Student Union Council, the purpose of these summonses is “to create a case for maximum repression” and intimidate students.
Student union groups claim the poisonings are part of an official campaign against female students since the protests which began last September.
Students barred from entering campuses
According to reports from student union groups in Iran, many more students have been banned from entering the universities of Tehran and Tabriz in the past month after many students were barred last year in the wake of widespread protests related to the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini in September 2022 after she was detained for improperly wearing her headscarf.
The Iran Student Union Council this week reported that 40 students at Tabriz University of Medical Sciences were summoned to the university disciplinary committee in the wake of the mysterious poisonings at universities, schools and dormitories since November. At Tabriz many students were summoned just a day after campus protests.
Videos circulating on social media on 8 March showed students at Tehran’s Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tabriz University of Medical Sciences and Amirkabir University of Technology staging on-campus protests over the government’s slow response to the poisonings.
After this month’s protest rallies linked to the poisonings, which students said were met with violence by security forces, and with many students threatened with arrest and security action, Allameh Tabataba’i University administrators and security ‘banned’ more than 30 students from entering the campus. The student union provided the names of some of the students banned from campus. Some students have also been temporarily banned from classes.
Last week, over 300 university professors condemned what they called were “organised chemical attacks” in a statement, declaring that the perpetrators of the “horrible crime” were among the “cruellest, most dangerous and most hated” enemies of children and teenagers.
The majority of schools affected have been girls-only high schools for students aged 12-18, according to Mahmoud Azimaee, a data scientist based in Canada who has been tracking incidents from media reports.
Schools in Qom were the first to be affected, as reported in November. Iran’s chief prosecutor, Mohammad Javad Montazeri, suggested on 21 February that the incidents could be deliberate. In a letter to the state prosecutor in Qom, Montazeri said the “worrying wave of some kind of poisoning” in schools in the city indicate “the possibility of intentional criminal actions”.
The poisonings have mainly affected schools around the country, but also included a large number of female students from at least four Iranian universities in November and December last year, who were affected after eating at university cafeterias at Arak University of Technology, Kharazmi University in Karaj, Alzahra University, a women’s institution in Tehran, and Isfahan University of Technology.
In December, the Kharazmi University’s clinic said it had been overwhelmed with the number of patients.
Education Department alleges ‘mass hysteria’
Yet the Education Department has played it down, saying the schoolgirls who were taken to hospital were suffering from “mass hysteria”. Iran’s Education Minister Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei insisted 95% of the girls were merely suffering “fear and worry”.
“At least one person has died, over 7,000 schoolgirls have been affected and many of them have been hospitalised. So, definitely, there is a real physical dimension, not some kind of a psychological mass hysteria, and the regime has acknowledged that – they have arrested some people,” Keele University’s Shahi said.
“The fact that the attacks have occurred throughout the country would suggest that whoever is behind them has access to a significant quantity of these chemicals and has the organisation to orchestrate such a large number of attacks across the country,” according to Shahi.
“It is a very difficult for ordinary people [to do] – it has to be an organised approach. And secondly, orchestration – all these attacks across the country require a lot of resources. So that’s why increasingly people have suggested it is either the Islamic Republic or a faction of it, based on previous experiences [of the regime].”
Shahi noted: “By attacking girls in their schools, the only possible motive must be to perpetuate a climate of fear in Iran. Perhaps fear is the last weapon in the arsenal of a regime that appears to be struggling for survival” since widespread protests began last September.
“People who targeted the schools [with poisonings] have exactly the same motivation to target the universities because we see once again the universities becoming very politicised, and they have become part of a very important platform for dissent and protest against the state,” Shahi said.