UNICEF offered Thursday to help Iran solve a series of incidents in which noxious fumes have sickened schoolchildren, particularly girls, in what some officials suspect is an attack on women’s education.
"School is a safe haven for children and teenagers to learn in a safe and supportive environment,” the United Nations children’s humanitarian agency said in a Twitter statement. “Such events can have a negative impact on the high rate of education of children, especially girls, which has been achieved in recent decades. UNICEF stands ready to provide any support needed."
The U.N. statement came a day after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said the country’s Interior Ministry, along with help from the health and intelligence ministries, should probe the incidents in which hundreds of girls at about 30 schools have been sickened since November.
Some of the students have been sickened to the extent they needed to be hospitalized. Children have complained about feeling lethargic or unable to move, while others have said they have headaches and heart palpitations. Some have described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning agents.
Shahryar Heydari, a member of the National Security Commission of the Iranian Parliament, said that nearly 900 students in different provinces of the country had fallen ill.
Prosecutor-general orders investigation
Raisi’s call for an investigation was the first time he had publicly addressed the fumes and illnesses affecting the schoolchildren.
Earlier, a senior security official had downplayed the issue, dismissing it as psychological warfare by unnamed enemies of the country.
"Over 99% of this is caused by stress, rumor and psychological war started particularly by hostile TV channels to create a troubled and stressful situation for students and their parents," Deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi told state TV. “Their goal was to force schools to close."
After months of downplaying the poisonings, state-run IRNA filed multiple stories on the subject on Sunday in which officials acknowledged the scope of the incidents.
Iran's prosecutor-general has ordered an investigation, saying, "There are possibilities of deliberate criminal acts." IRNA quoted a deputy health minister as saying unnamed people wanted the schools to close.
“It is important we didn’t see any reaction from Iranian officials since the poisoning started three months ago. I believe the regime is behind these attacks,” Hasan Etemadi, an Iranian journalist and political analyst, told VOA’s Persian New Network.
“The purpose of these attacks is the same with what [the] Iranian regime wants,” Etemadi said. “We saw some students’ parents are saying they don’t want to send their girls to school. This is what the Iranian regime wants. They several times said they want to close schools and universities and at least put classes virtually.”
No suspects arrested
Although the number of children sickened is growing, security authorities say they have yet to detain anyone in connection with the incidents.
Unlike neighboring Afghanistan, Iran has no history of religious extremists targeting girls' education. Women and girls continued attending school even at the height of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled Iran's Western-backed monarchy.
The poisonings come at a sensitive time for Iran, which has faced months of nationwide protests since a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died in September 2022 after being arrested by the morality police for allegedly violating Iran's strict Islamic dress code by improperly wearing her hijab. Hundreds of protesters and some security personnel have been killed in street demonstrations targeting the government’s treatment of Amini. (MSM/VOA)