*Mahmoud Sadri is a professor of sociology and Alireza Ghandriz is a geopolitical analyst
Approximately from December 2022 and during the height of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” street protests in Iran, the shocking news of “student poisonings” in several all girl schools emerged and quickly spread on social and mass media, as did the reports of schools affected. It was at that time that the authors of this article, set out to examine the evidence, prevailing opinion, and other reports of student poisoning in the region’s recent history.
Given the absence of transparent and reliable reporting, the responsibility, which rests with Iran’s immense governmental bureaucracy charged with this task, a cacophony of wild rumors, partisan chatter, and conspiratorial scenarios emerged and spread on social media in Iran and elsewhere.
A thorough analysis of relevant literature suggests that the common denominator of the accusations is the assumption of a “conspiracy”: Those pointing the finger of accusation toward the regime that would punish the female youngsters participating in the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests, and those accusing the regime’s opponents plotting to sow discord and destruction in Iran. Actual evidence of systematic chemical or biological poisoning, however was (and remains) missing or else, vague and contradictory. Most of the reports cite the stench of rotten fruits, cleaning products, or pepper spray (widely available to women in Iran and elsewhere). A few reports referred to phrases similar to the following: “a complicated combination of several gas agents impossible for ordinary people to access … a cleverly produced agent to cause illness but not death.” However, these reports, while documenting the experience of the students who smelled things such as “rotten fish, rotten oranges and diesel fuel” fail to offer a hint about the mysterious “clever” substance at work.
We reported our conclusions on a major electronic list-serve: “Gulf 2000” (administered by the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University) on March 2, 2023. Soon after the appearance of our post, a number of other skeptical articles were published that corroborated our initial suspicions.  Here is an excerpt from our initial post (with minor additions):
“How is it possible that amidst such a firestorm of fear and confusion, there is no solid evidence for any agents (in both senses of the word) at work? Who are the “usual suspects”? The regime in Iran? What possible benefit would such a chaotic situation bring to a weakened regime, and why would it mete out such punishment equally to loyal and dissenting populations in both rural and urban areas of the country? Foreign governments? What could any foreign government gain from such an indiscriminate ruthless attack against the civilian population? Religious zealots? Why would radical elements suffice to such disparate and ineffective methods if they mean to prove a point?
There is another possible explanation: a mixture of initial local (physical or psychological) illnesses triggering a wider phenomenon known as: “Mass sociogenic illness,” defined in a publication of the “Canadian Medical Association” as “the rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms affecting members of a cohesive group, originating from a nervous system disturbance involving excitation, loss or alteration of function, whereby physical complaints that are exhibited unconsciously have no corresponding organic etiology.”
Intriguingly, three other instances of this phenomenon have been reported in West Asia in the last four decades: in Palestine, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. In one of these cases, rival combatants accused each other of culpability; in all of the cases, victims were mostly female school-aged children, and, also, in all cases, no evidence of chemical toxins or biological agents were found. Crucially, no indication of malingering or deliberate lying were found among the victims either.
Concerning the West Bank, the Centers for Disease Control received a request through the U.S. Department of State to provide a team of physicians to investigate a health problem on the West Bank. The data collected in these investigations indicate psychological factors triggered the West Bank epidemic.
In Chechnya, authorities closed schools in part of the battered region after a mysterious poisoning sickened at least 70 people, most of them schoolchildren, according to the officials. Rebels and the Russian government accused each other of war crimes but no evidence of systemic poisoning was found. 
In Afghanistan women and girls have long suffered from mysterious collective ailments. Evidence of these ailments were publicized in 2021. In that case too, doctors were at odds with each other and with authorities regarding the cause. Again, in the absence of solid common evidence, the most common theories turned to a “Quiet Epidemic of Mass Psychogenic Illness.”
Can’t help but notice the sociological common denominators in the above four cases (counting Iran this time): a vulnerable section of a larger population in crisis, with legitimate fears of acute and chronic threats and with bleak horizons of security or success, succumb to a collective ailment that gives expression to their unimaginable sufferings.
While this perspective tears apart the thick veil of conspiracy theories concerning the involvement of the Iranian regime or its various and sundry rivals in mysterious conspiracies of poisoning, it does accuse the theocratic and autocratic regime of Iran of the suppressive measures it has implemented during the recent protests, for creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, to the extent that their younger citizens exhibit the symptoms only found in the most crisis-ridden and war-torn populations of the region: West Bank of 1983, Chechnya of 2005, and Afghanistan of 2021.
 While most of the Health-oriented centers were vague about the symptoms and source of the ailments they were observing, the regime and its official representatives did not hesitate to accuse the foreign governments and ‘people behind the scenes” for the atrocity of poisoning school children. According to a “Fars” report, Ibrahim Raisi, the Presidentexplicitly contemned the enemies of the country in this conspiracy:
Likewise, the “Committee for the Discovery of the Truth Concerning School Poisonings” in the ultra-conservative parliament in Tehran accused “the people behind the scene” in the school poisonings. (Isna)
Coincidentally, on the day we posted our piece, Alireza Doustdar, an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago, attributed the “poisonings” to “Mass sociogenic illness.”
Weir, Erica. “Mass Sociogenic Illness.” CMAJ, January 4, 2005. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/172/1/36.
“Epidemic of Acute Illness–West Bank.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed May 31, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000068.htm
“Mystery Illness in Chechnya: Poison or Hysteria?” NPR, March 22, 2006.
Undark Magazine. “In Afghanistan, a Quiet Epidemic of Mass Psychogenic Illness.” Undark Magazine, July 29, 2022. https://undark.org/2022/07/13/mass-psychogenic-illness-in-afghanistan/