This grab taken from a UGC video made available on the ESN platform on March 4, 2023, shows families gathering and chanting slogans outside an education ministry building in Tehran, following poisoning attacks on students. Image Credit: AFP

Tehran: Iranian teachers held protests in several cities on Tuesday over suspected poisonings targeting hundreds of schoolgirls. Security forces broke up several of the demonstrations using water cannons and tear gas, activists said.

Iran’s deputy interior minister on Tuesday announced the first arrests in the spate of mystery poisonings.

Based on the intelligence and research measures of the intelligence agencies, a number of people have been arrested in five provinces and the relevant agencies are conducting a full investigation,” Majid Mirahmadi told state television

. “Twenty-five (out of 31) provinces and approximately 230 schools have been affected, and more than 5,000 schoolgirls and boys poisoned,” Mohammad-Hassan Asafari, a member of the parliamentary fact-finding committee, told the ISNA news agency on Monday.

“Various tests are being carried out to identify the type and cause of the poisonings. So far, no specific information has been obtained regarding the type of poison used.”

Meanwhile, prosecutors started filing criminal charges against journalists, activists and others over their comments on the still-unsolved incidents that began in November and escalated in recent days, with dozens of schools reporting suspected cases.

The alleged poisonings come as Iran has faced months of protests over the September death of Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the country’s morality police, one of the most-serious challenges to Iran’s theocracy since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

These new incidents threaten to again stoke public anger as parents fear for their children’s safety. It remains unclear who may be behind the suspected attacks and what chemicals — if any — have been used.

400 hospitalised

At least 127 schools have reported suspected poisoning cases so far, according to figures compiled by the Tehran-based reformist newspaper Etemad, with dozens reported on one recent day alone. Nearly every school reporting an incident has been a girls’ school.

Activists and Iranian media reports previously have said that over 1,000 students complained of falling ill with at least 400 of them hospitalised. Iranian authorities have offered no exact figures since the crisis began.

However, Mohammed Hassan Asefari, a prominent Iranian lawmaker who is on a panel investigating the incidents and has close ties to security forces, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that as many as 5,000 students have complained of being sickened in 230 schools across 25 of Iran’s 31 provinces. No other official or media report has offered figures that high so far.

On Tuesday, online videos and photos purportedly showed teachers demonstrating in a number of Iranian cities, including Ahvaz, Isfahan, Karaj, Mashhad, Rasht, Sanandaj, Saqqez and Shiraz.

Others showed anti-riot police on streets, with some police officers surrounding those demonstrating in Isfahan. Activists identifying themselves as belonging to Iran’s Coordinating Council of Teachers Syndicates said police used pepper spray, water cannons and force to disperse protesters in Mashhad, Rasht and Saqqez.

Iranian state media made no mention of Tuesday’s demonstrations or of security forces dispersing demonstrators. Teachers have been targeted by security forces and faced arrests for months over protesting in support of their long-standing demands for salary increases amid the collapse of Iran’s currency, the rial.

Protesters and others have raised the possibility that religious extremists may be targeting schoolgirls to stop them from receiving educations. Attacks on women have happened in the past in Iran, most recently with a wave of acid attacks in 2014 around Isfahan, at the time believed to have been carried out by hardliners targeting women for how they dressed. But even in the chaos surrounding the Islamic Revolution, no one targeted schoolgirls for attending classes.

Iran itself also has been calling on the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to have girls and women return to school.

Determining what’s going on in Iran has been difficult. Authorities have detained nearly 100 journalists since the start of the protests in September over the death of the 22-year-old Amini, detained allegedly because of how she was dressed. The targeting of journalists has escalated in recent days amid their reports on the suspected poisonings.

Tehran chief prosecutor Ali Salehi said authorities began filing charges against journalists, including editors at the reformist newspapers Hammihan and Shargh, which have led reporting on the suspected poisonings. A news site, activists and others also face charges over allegedly spreading “unreal claims and totally false” statements about the attacks, Salehi said, according to the Iranian judiciary’s Mizan news agency.

Salehi sought to justify the cases by saying those charged jeopardized the “psychological security” of Iran’s citizens.