Between November 2022 and March 2023, up to 7,000 of schoolgirls were poisoned at dozens of schools in at least 28 of Iran’s 31 provinces, according to human rights groups and government officials. Hundreds were hospitalized with symptoms that included respiratory distress, numbness in limbs, heart palpitations, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. The outbreak at schools for girls, first reported in the holy city of Qom, generated new protests against the government.
The government initially dismissed the illnesses as “rumors” and blamed the “underlying diseases” and “anxiety” of the students, even though the girls reported distinctive smells, such as citrus fruit or chlorides. On February 28, the Health Ministry said a team of 30 toxicologists identified the toxins that poisoned the girls as nitrogen gas, which is invisible, tasteless and odorless.
As the frequency of incidents escalated, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the wave of poisonings as “a huge, unforgivable crime.” On March 6, he demanded that the perpetrators, when caught, face the death penalty. The new crisis followed nationwide protests over personal freedoms, soaring inflation as the value of the rial has dropped another 30 percent in just two months, and fuel shortages during a bitter winter.
On March 7, Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi announced that the government had arrested five people connected to the poisonings. Gen. Saeed Montazer al Mahdi charged the perpetrators, who were working for foreign adversaries, sought to “create insecurity and chaos.”
New anti-government protests over the poisonings erupted in mid-February. By early March, demonstrations were organized around Ministry of Education offices in Tehran and other provincial capitals, including Mashhad, Rasht, Sanandaj, and Shiraz. In the Iranian capital, angry families shouted slogans comparing the Revolutionary Guards and other law enforcement agencies to ISIS, the Sunni extremist movement. On March 6, protestors fathered in Tehran chanted, “Death to the child-murdering government.”
Iran also faced mounting global condemnation for its delayed response. A spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva called for a transparent investigation. The White House demanded “a credible independent investigation” and “accountability for those responsible.” On March 6, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, “If these poisonings are related to participation in protests then it is well within the mandate of the U.N. independent international fact finding mission on Iran to investigate.”
Human rights groups blasted the Iranian government for being unable or unwilling to stop the attacks against Iranian schoolgirls and allow them to continue their schooling. “International support is urgently needed to protect Iranian children and their right to education,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
During the Islamic Republic’s first four decades, Iran made major strides in educating females. Before the revolution, literacy among females was 28 percent. Female literacy among girls 15 to 24 soared to 99 percent by 2021, according to the World Bank. Iran won the U.N. award for closing the gender gap in education in 1998. For years, the university student body was over 60 percent female.
Over the years, young women have become crucial players in Iranian politics and society. Starting in September 2022, young women in their teens and twenties were the driving force behind protests demanding an end to hijab, or the strict dress code. “School girls enthusiastically joined the anti-state protests in Iran,” Ghaemi said. “Like the Iranian government, the people who are carrying out these attacks are petrified of these girls’ potential and power.”
Senior Iranian officials charged that the perpetrators of the attacks sought to block girls from attending schools, where many of the protests originated. “Poisoning female students intentionally is very bad news,” Alireza Monadi, the head of parliament’s education committee, told Iranian media. “The fact that a group of people wanted to prohibit young girls from attending school is alarming. We have to find the roots of it.” The following is a timeline of events related to the poisonings.
Late November: Hundreds of students reported suffering from symptoms that included vomiting, diarrhea, and body aches at four colleges in Tehran, Isfahan, Arak and Karaj. Officials in Isfahan initially cited bacteria in the food as a possible cause.
Nov. 30: In Qom, 18 students at the Noor Yazdanshahr Conservatory for girls reported poisoning by inhalation.
Dec. 13: The Noor Yazdanshahr Conservatory reported that 51 students were sick from poisoning.
Feb. 14: In Qom, 117 girls became sick. Parents protested and demanded answers at protests outside government offices. Cases were also reported at the Doshifete middle school for boys in Qom.
Feb. 22: At a press conference, Minister of Education Yusef Nouri blamed the illnesses on “rumors” and “underlying conditions.”
Feb. 26: Younes Panahi, the deputy health minister, said that the poisonings were intentional and aimed at closing schools for girls. “It became clear that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be shut down,” he said. But Panahi later charged that he was misquoted.
Feb. 26: Fatemeh Rezaei, an 11-year-old girl in Qom, became the first known death linked to the poisonings.
Feb. 28: Health Minister Bahram Einollahi told Tasnim News that a “mild poison” caused the recent illnesses.
Feb. 28: Some 37 reported being poisoned at the Khayyam High School in Pardis, near Tehran. Nearly 200 girls reported being poisoned at four schools in western Borujerd over the previous week.
March 1: More than 100 girls were hospitalized in northwestern Ardabil with poisoning. President Raisi instructed his minister of interior to lead an investigation into the illnesses. Amnesty International said the “attacks on school girls in Iran must be stopped.”
March 3: Local and international media estimated that the total number of victims had risen to between 800 and 1,200 at 58 schools in eight provinces. The United States and Germany as well as officials at U.N. Human Rights Council demanded transparent investigations into the mass illnesses.
March 4: Parents launched anti-government protests outside the Ministry of Education in Tehran. “In field studies, suspicious samples have been found, which are being assessed,” Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi told local media.
March 5: Dozens of girls were hospitalized as poisoning were reported at some 80 schools, according to Iran International, a Persian language TV station. Security forces detained Ali Pourtabatabaei, a journalist in Qom who was covering the poisonings.
March 6: In a speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei called the poisonings an “unforgivable crime” for which perpetrators should be severely punished.
President Raisi created a task force–to include security and law enforcement agencies as well as the health Ministry and laboratories–to investigate.
Interior Minister Vahidi claimed lab tests showed that none of the students had been exposed to “toxic and dangerous” materials, while “stimulants” that do not cause “lasting risks” had been found in less than five percent of the cases. “More than 90 percent of the students expressed their discomfort due to the anxiety and worries created in the classroom,” he said.
Foreign media reported that students hospitalized in Ardabil and Tehran were warned by security forces to remain silent about the poisonings. Parents were also reportedly blocked from visiting children in hospitals.
March 7: The government reported the arrest of five people connected to the poisonings. One of the detainees had sent a video to “hostile media” to create public “fear and apprehension.” Another official claimed that some of the detainees were students engaged in pranks. The Tehran prosecutor announced formal charges against journalists and activists.
Protesters, including parents and teachers, condemned the government in more than a dozen cities, including Tehran, Shiraz, Mashhad, Rasht, and Sanandaj. Some chanted, “Death to the child-killing regime.”
In a report on the situation for women in Iran, HRANA, a human rights monitoring group, claimed that some 7,000 students at more than 103 schools spread across 28 provinces had taken ill.
March 8: The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called for “thorough investigations” and “immediate actions to protect schools” so students could return safely to classrooms.