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With over 100 victims, who is poisoning Iran's schoolgirls?

Hundreds of Iranian schoolgirls have been mysteriously poisoned over the past few months and the government was forced to open an investigation when the problem reached Tehran on Wednesday.
Iranian school-girls attend President Rouhani's presentation of the for 2018-2019 budget to the parliament on December 10, 2017, in Tehran. / AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi ordered authorities on Wednesday to investigate the poisoning of schoolgirls in the country. The poison attacks are furthering discontent with the Islamic Republic amid continued protests in the country. 

Local reports have suggested that the wave of poisonings has been going on for months in different schools across Iran, with female students taken to the hospital after reports of smelling gas. The cases are now estimated at over 100.

The Fars News Agency reported new cases in Tehran on Wednesday. Similar reports have come from the holy city of Qom, as well as Borujerd and Ardabil, among others. 

At a cabinet meeting, Raisi told the interior, health and intelligence ministers to start a probe. He said they should promptly release their findings to the public, The Associated Press reported. 

Background: Over 100 Iranian students — mainly girls — have been poisoned via noxious fumes in recent months. The poisoning began in late November in Qom, near the capital Tehran. Iranian Health Minister Bahram Einollah said Tuesday that the poisonings have been “mild,” though hundreds have been hospitalized, Iran International reported. 

Most of the targets have been girls’ schools, but Reuters reported Monday that at least one boys' school in western Iran’s Borujerd was also hit. More than 30 schools in at least four cities have been affected, according to the outlet. 

It is unclear why the girls are being poisoned. Deputy Health Minister Younes Panahi said on Sunday the poison is related to a plan to close girls' schools. 

"After the poisoning of several students in Qom schools, it was found that some people wanted all schools, especially girls' schools, to be closed," said Panahi, according to AFP. Panahi did not appear to provide much further detail. 

Some in Iran believe religious extremists want to stop girls from going to school, according to Iran International.

Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said on Wednesday that no arrests have been made in relation to the poisonings, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. 

Why it matters: The poison attacks are further fueling the debate over the treatment of women and girls in Iran. Widespread anti-government protests and riots began last September in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish Iranian woman who died in police custody after being arrested for "improperly" wearing the mandatory hijab. 

The Iranian government has responded to the protests with violence. As of January, at least 522 Iranians had been killed with another 20,000 arrested, according to the US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency. 

Unsurprisingly, some Iranians blame the government for the poison. 

Know more: The poison attacks come as Iran’s economy is in crisis amid US sanctions, corruption and government mismanagement. Iran’s currency fell to an all-time low and prices for necessities are skyrocketing, Al-Monitor’s correspondent in Tehran reported in February. 

The incident is reminiscent of the poisoning of Afghan school girls in 2012, allegedly by the Taliban. 

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