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Suspected poisonings in Iran sicken hundreds of schoolgirls

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Hundreds of students at girl schools in Iran have gotten sick. The cause is unclear. There are no reports of deaths. But many Iranians believe the students were poisoned. Borzou Daragahi is an international correspondent for The Independent. What do we know about what's happening to these students who are getting sick?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: I mean, they're all reporting a similar smell coming into their classrooms or schools. They are - some of them fall sick immediately. Some have been hospitalized. Most recover within 24 hours or so, some do not. Some remain hospitalized. And it is creating a lot of panic and a lot of unease among parents. And it's become kind of a huge issue at this point, a national issue and even an international issue.

MARTÍNEZ: And why do some people think that it's poisoning?

DARAGAHI: Well, this demographic, these high school-age girls, were the same group who were leading the charge against the regime during months of protests last month. And there are these very shadowy, very extremist groups in Iran, especially in the shrine city of Qom, where these alleged attacks began. And they have a history of carrying out these kinds of terror operations, sometimes beyond the control of the regime, even though they're fanatically pro-regime. So this kind of thing has happened before. There was a spate of serial killings targeting dissidents in the 90's with these groups. And there was also a spate of young men splashing acid onto the faces of women that they perceived were not properly dressed.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Iran's supreme leader says that any confirmed poisoning of schoolgirls would be, quote, "an unforgivable crime." Is the Iranian government taking any action so far?

DARAGAHI: Well, I mean, they are - they've had to. They've been forced to. They've been shamed into doing it. These attacks began in late November. And they were trying to just kind of slide it under the rug, downplay it, etc. And now they've moved into damage control mode. And now they're addressing it, as it can't be addressed anymore. And the response from the regime is typical. Foreign kind of interlopers are responsible. The enemy has done something. They're overhyping it. They're the ones who are doing this. Meanwhile, they are saying that they've launched an investigation. There are some rumors of suspicious vehicles here and there. But nothing has come of it yet.

MARTÍNEZ: So no suspects or no even leaning on what could be the cause?

DARAGAHI: No arrests. No suspects. But there are, you know, these - and then, at the same time, they're kind of alleging that maybe this is psychological, that no poisoning is actually taking place. It's some kind of mass hysteria and so on. But the parents of the girls who are being attacked don't buy this.

MARTÍNEZ: So are people in Iran just confused, angry, a mix of both? It sounds like they would be at this point.

DARAGAHI: People are enraged. And this just adds to mistrust of the regime and suspicion about the regime. And it shows the kind of nature of the regime that no one believes anything they say anymore because they have such a credibility problem.

MARTÍNEZ: Borzou Daragahi is an international correspondent for The Independent. Thanks a lot for your time.

DARAGAHI: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.