DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian teachers protested Tuesday over suspected poisonings targeting schoolgirls, as a prominent lawmaker and an activist group put the number of those reporting symptoms into the thousands across hundreds of schools.
The new figures dramatically escalate the ongoing crisis now gripping the highest levels of Iran’s theocracy, already under pressure after months of demonstrations following the death of Mahsa Amini in September.
Meanwhile, prosecutors started filing criminal charges against journalists, activists and others over their comments on the still-unsolved incidents that began in November. Officials also again announced arrests of unnamed suspects over the occurrences, with little detail, after withdrawing similar earlier claims.
These new incidents at schools, with new ones reported Tuesday, 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.
“The poisonings are further forcing a domestic conversation along Iran’s deep social divides between religious conservative Iranians and more secular liberal Iranians,” risk-intelligence firm the RANE Network said in an analysis. “If the poisonings continue, they will become another trigger of disruptive unrest against the government, regardless of whether the government is actually behind them or not.”
One new toll came from Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that also monitored the recent protests over Amini’s death. Relying on official reports and activists, the group said at least 290 suspected school poisonings have happened over recent months, with at least 7,060 students claiming to be affected.
At least 99 cities and 28 of Iran’s 31 provinces have been affected in the crisis, the group said. Tehran province has seen the most suspected incidents with 33 cases, followed by Qom province, where the crisis began in November.
Another toll came from Mohammed Hassan Asefari, a prominent Iranian lawmaker who is on a panel investigating the incidents and has close ties to security forces. He told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that as many as 5,000 students have complained of being sickened in 230 schools across 25 provinces.
Iranian authorities to this point have yet to offer exact figures in the crisis. Activists and Iranian media reports previously have said that over 1,000 students complained of falling ill with at least 400 of them hospitalized.
Angry over what they described as the government’s slow response, teachers demonstrated in a number of Iranian cities, including Ahvaz, Isfahan, Karaj, Mashhad, Rasht, Sanandaj, Saqqez and Shiraz, online videos purported to show.
Other videos 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 hard-liners 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.
Iran’s government, while initially ignoring reports of alleged poisonings back in November, has faced increasing pressure from the public to respond. On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said any culprits connected to the alleged poisonings should be sentenced to death for committing an “unforgivable crime.”
Seeking to ease worries, Iran’s Interior Ministry announced Tuesday night it made arrests in six provinces of unnamed suspects over the suspected poisonings.
However, its statement focused on one arrestee it described as making a video of one suspected school poisoning that was sent to “hostile media in order to be exploited in the scenario of creating fear and apprehension.” It also said three others were active in the recent protests.
Officials have made claims about arrests previously that were later denied.
As Iran struggles to respond, international pressure is growing on Tehran to investigate. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday called for a “credible, independent investigation” into the incidents by the United Nations.
“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,” she said. Iran hasn’t acknowledged asking for outside help and has described some of the recent incidents as episodes of “hysteria.”
The World Health Organization documented a similar phenomenon in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, when hundreds of girls across the country complained of strange smells and poisoning. No evidence was found to support the suspicions, and WHO said it appeared to be a “mass psychogenic illness.”