Three months ago, Iranian news outlets began reporting that schoolgirls were falling ill with headaches, nausea and breathing difficulties, say Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh in The Wall Street Journal. The bizarre symptoms – later found to be caused by poisoning – were recorded in 25 of the country’s 31 provinces, with more than 5,000 students and teachers affected. Official reaction ranged from “surprise and denial to grudging acknowledgement”: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called the attacks a “major and unforgivable crime”; last week the Interior Ministry reported several “suspects” had been arrested. But there’s “little doubt” about who was really responsible: the regime itself.
This astonishing move risks further unsettling Iran’s “wobbly theocracy”. Ever since the outbreak of protests last September, the mullahs have been struggling to reassert control without “excess” brutality. Khamenei must have assumed these poisonings would intimidate young women into submission without killing them and making them martyrs. But the regime has “miscalculated egregiously”. Khamenei’s “flimsy denials” have outraged the public, with thousands of teachers and students staging protests in at least 20 cities. What’s more, the secretive nature of the attacks has shown that the dictator is acutely aware of his precarious position. A despot “sometimes has to be brazen”: Xi Jinping doesn’t blame outsiders for his concentration camps; Bashar al-Assad hasn’t shied away from killing tens of thousands in the “name of national unity”. Khamenei’s deflections show he is no longer secure enough to unapologetically launch a brutal crackdown on his “unruly nation”. The supreme leader is “unquestionably losing his grip”.