March Is Women’s History Month, But Not in Iran

March Is Women’s History Month, But Not in Iran

Hundreds of Iranian schoolgirls are falling ill from poisonings, suspected to be the work of extremist religious groups trying to instill fear and prevent participation in protests.

“Dear mothers, I’m a mother and my child is in a hospital bed…don’t send your children to school,” one parent in the Iranian city of Qom pleads.

Iranian schoolgirls by the hundreds are falling ill from poisonings. The exact perpetrators of the attacks are unclear, but human rights groups suspect that extremist religious groups that have found fertile ground in the Islamic Republic of Iran are behind it. Analysts speculate one motive behind the poisoning is to instill fear so the girls won’t attend school and will refrain from participating in the mass protests that have spread throughout Iran since September 2022.

The Biden administration, along with its allies, should raise this deeply troubling development at the forthcoming Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council meeting, which begins on March 14.

March is Women’s History Month. President Joe Biden commemorated it with a call to “create a nation where every woman and girl knows her possibilities know no bounds in America.” The opposite is happening in Iran.

Since November, toxic poisonings, perhaps chemical compounds, in over fifty schools have poisoned more than 1,000 Iranian schoolgirls. Students experienced nausea, numbness in their limbs, difficulty breathing, and heart palpitations, according to the New York Times. The string of attacks has deterred girls from attending school. One teacher told Iranian media that “of the 250 students in our school, only 50 attended classes.” Yet Iran’s interior minister blamed some of the girls’ symptoms on “stress” and condemned foreign news outlets for causing alarm.

The students’ families protested the poisonings, chanting, “we don’t want unsafe schools.” A leaked video shows the arrest of one mother for her solidarity with the schoolgirls.

The poisonings come amid the nationwide protests that broke out in September when twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody after Tehran’s morality police arrested her for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly. The protests condemn the clerical regime’s brutality and call for the end of its reign.

Iran’s intelligence ministry and security forces said they are investigating the incidents, but Iran does not have a record of credible investigations. For example, its officials deny that rapes are occurring in prisons, that Tehran has arrested thousands of protestors, and that security forces have killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.

After being poisoned twice, a student described the contradictory answers. They told her “All is good, we’ve done our investigation.” However, separately, the school told her father that the closed-circuit television surveillance “has been down for a week and we can’t investigate this.” The school wrongly claimed the student had a heart condition that was to blame for the painful symptoms.

Denial is part of Tehran’s modus operandi. In February, a leaked Iranian government document revealed the Islamic Republic deliberately concealed that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agents raped female protesters. It cited “the possibility of this information being leaked to social media and its misrepresentation by enemy groups” as reasons to keep it secret.

In a TV interview, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour asked Iranian foreign minister Amir-Abdollahian about regime agents reportedly raping a protestor at an IRGC facility. Brushing off the accusation, Abdollahian said CNN’s reports “are targeted and false … I cannot confirm it. There have been so many such baseless claims made on social media.” Amanpour asserted, “These are not baseless and they weren’t on the internet. CNN spoke to a cleric, a religious person, inside your country and got this story.”

At a recent press briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We expect Iranian authorities to fully investigate these reported poisonings.”

This is not enough.

The United States should call attention to the issue at the OPCW’s March Executive Council meeting. Ambassador Joseph Manso, the U.S. representative to the OPCW, should raise the matter now with a view toward recommending a full investigation by the OPCW at subsequent meetings. Iran should but likely won’t agree to such an investigation.

In 2018, OPCW established an Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) to probe Assad’s chemical weapons use in Syria. OPCW found that the Syrian Arab Air Forces had likely conducted a chemical weapons attack that killed 43 individuals and affected many others.

There is more the international community can do to hold Iran accountable. As part of the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission into Iran’s human rights abuses related to the protests, it should now consider the poisonings as part of its investigation.

The Islamic Republic’s history of hiding the truth makes a third-party investigation into the poisoning attacks necessary. The international community must have a credible investigation to ascertain culpability. A pattern of human rights abuses is why Iran was removed from the UN Commission on the Status of Women last December.

While the Islamic Republic continues to undermine women’s rights, the resilience of women in Iran will not fade. In observing Women’s History Month, Biden and the international community must act. Let’s actively support the women of Iran this March—and every other month.

Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Katie Romaine is a government relations associate at FDD. Follow the authors on Twitter @TobyDersh and @Katie_Romaine.

Image: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.