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Poisoning allegations at girls schools in Iran sparks responses from leaders

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Amid the ongoing unrest and months of protests in Iran, there's also been something of a mystery developing. Students at dozens of girls schools have reportedly been getting sick, and that has led to theories, even among some officials, that some form of poisoning may be taking place. Today Iran's supreme leader weighed in on it himself. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that those responsible should be sentenced to death for what he calls a, quote, "unforgivable crime," if it's proven. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following this story from Istanbul and joins us now. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So how much do we know at this point about these reports of schoolgirls getting sick?

KENYON: Well, the incidents began in the city of Qom, and that was back in November. But only recently have Iranian officials acknowledged the incidents and begun to talk about what the government is doing in response. Now, the fact that the supreme leader is talking about the incidents is a fairly dramatic escalation in focus, much more so than the recent, more generic official comments we've heard about, quote, "the latest plot by Iran's enemies," that sort of thing. And Khamenei saying that if the poisonings are proved, execution should result, leaves open the possibility of some other cause. But, really, what's remarkable is how little appears to be known about these alleged incidents. There are far more questions than answers. What, if any, toxic substance is being used? If what has been going on are deliberate attacks, who's behind them and why?

CHANG: Well, what kinds of theories are out there about exactly what's going on at this point?

KENYON: Well, there is a theory. It's being voiced by a very outspoken Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid. He leads the Friday prayers in the southeastern city of Zahedan. He suggested that the alleged poisonings could be some kind of retaliation against students for continuing to take part in anti-regime protests. They began back in September after a young woman died in police custody after she was detained for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. That death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini from Iran's Kurdish minority set off protests across Iran. It constituted what analysts saw as the biggest threat to Iran's cleric-led government since it had come to power. This Sunni cleric, Abdolhamid, also suggested the alleged poisonings could be the work of, quote, "Shiite extremists who seek to deny education to girls." Now, this is not a common feeling in Iran, as it is in other places such as Afghanistan. Now, I have seen reports that hundreds of schoolgirls were taken to hospitals on March 5 with potential symptoms of poisoning, things like respiratory ailments. Iran's interior minister says two girls with what he called preexisting conditions are still in hospital. But throughout all these reported incidents, no one has died.

CHANG: Wow, OK, but still horrible. I'm going to switch gears a little bit here, Peter. Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, is back in the news. Talks have been mostly frozen while the country dealt with protests, but what's the latest on these talks now?

KENYON: Well, the head of the IAEA - that's the International Atomic Energy Agency - was in Tehran, two days of talks with the chief of Iran's atomic energy organization. And now the IAEA director, Rafael Grossi, sounded quite upbeat about what he was calling progress. Then he kind of walked that back. And there's been some pushback from Iranian officials who say they'll cooperate as required under the law and the nuclear agreement. Grossi says any progress will depend on future negotiations. Meanwhile, the IAEA still wants to know what about these uranium particles found to be enriched to 84% purity, extremely close to weapons-grade fuel.

CHANG: That is NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you so much, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.