Poisoned Schoolgirls: The Illegitimacy of Iran (IRI)

By Rojin Mukriyan

In the midst of the Jin, Jiyan, Azadî (Woman, Life, Freedom) protests last autumn, which were triggered by the police murder of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Jina (Mahsa) Amini, reports emerged of poisonings of schoolgirls and university students throughout wider Iran and Eastern Kurdistan (northwest Iran). In November 2022, students in Qom and Isfahan reported experiencing heartburn, shortness of breath, numbness, diarrhea, and vomiting. For the past five months, reports have continuously emerged describing similar incidents. Over 7,000 schoolgirls have now been reportedly poisoned in Iran. It is important to emphasize again that these events have been taking place in the context of a revolutionary movement led by the same demographic sub-section of the population that are the victims of these poisonings. Young women and schoolgirls are one of the most oppressed groups in Iran, especially if they are also from a ethnic minority group (such as the Kurds), who have been leading the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. Predictably, they have also been the main target of these poisonings.

Initially, Iranian state media dismissed the poisoning incidents as an attempt by students to miss exams, while video circulated on social media showed a mother violently beaten in front of her children’s school, simply for demanding information. Then, on March 6th, 2023, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, described the poisonings as “a huge, unforgivable crime.” However, even as these attacks have been ongoing for more than five months, the Iranian authorities seem either unable or unwilling to prevent such attacks.

Given that Iran has a formidable amount of intelligence agencies, it is hard to believe they would be unable to apprehend the actual perpetrators of the poisoning of over 7,000 schoolgirls. For example, Iran established the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) in 1983 that later, in 1989, became responsible for coordinating the entire intelligence community, which is composed of sixteen intelligence and counterintelligence bodies. The MOIS operates under the control of the president, but the minister who oversees the agency must be chosen with the approval of the Supreme Leader. There is also the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence unit that is directly operated under the supervision of Khamenei.

The primary mission of Iranian intelligence agencies is to keep the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in power. For this purpose, they have dedicated significant resources to gathering information both inside the country and abroad regarding possible dissidents, so as to neutralize any potential threat to the existence of the Islamic regime. For example, as far as official records are concerned, Iran executed more than 500 people in 2022. Moreover, the Iranian security forces have killed and jailed 18,000 protestors in the past six months. As we can see, there is a huge contrast between the rapid deployment of forces to crackdown, arrest, and jail peaceful protestors and a supposed incapacity to prevent, identify, or arrest perpetrators of such large scale, coordinated poisoning attacks against young girls. Therefore, it could be said that even if the regime itself is not directly behind these attacks, it is aware of them to the degree of tolerating and permitting them.

And if Iran is incapable of preventing such largescale attacks against their own population, then they must be unwilling to prevent them. At this juncture it is hard not to regard such a sin of omission as a sin of commission. Indeed, how much of a difference is there between being unwilling to prevent something and being willing to cause it? The essential question must then be, what sort of relationship exists between the victims of these attacks and those supervening forces which may be permitting them? In other words, what sort of adversarial relationship exists between your average Kurdish schoolgirl and the Islamic Republic of Iran?

To answer this question, I will utilize an important concept from the 20th century English political theorist, Bernard Williams, which he calls the Basic Legitimation Demand (BLD). Williams distinguishes between two basic ways of applying political theory: political moralism and political realism. Political moralism is the attempt either to have morality determine political outcomes through structural constraints, as in the case of John Rawls’s famous theory of justice, or to have morality treat politics as a mere means or medium for the application of previously discovered moral principles, as in the case of much utilitarian political theory.

Political realism, by contrast, is a way of doing political theory without recourse to either the structural or enactment models. Instead, it focuses on determining whether the ‘first political question’ has been answered. By emphasizing this question, political reality enjoys priority over morality. The ‘first political question’ is the question of whether a political entity—whether it be a regime, system, state or other—provides sufficient security and protection to its people such that this condition is markedly distinct from a previous condition of anarchy, lawlessness, fear, and likely mass violence. For Williams, this is essentially a Hobbesian question about the baseline provision of order and security that any political entity must accomplish in order to count as a political entity. This is because, for Hobbes, the political is the exchanging of protection for obedience.

According to Williams, to be realist about the political is to determine if those who obey a political entity are sufficiently protected by that very entity such that they no longer live in a state of lawless terror, Hobbes’ famous state of nature as a war of all against all. If the ‘first political question’ is answered in the positive, then we have what Williams calls ‘legitimacy.’ Political legitimacy is the fulfillment of the deal struck between the governors and the governed of any political entity that the former will protect the latter while the latter will obey the former. The point of entering into a political situation is to live in a state of relative peace and security, that is, not in a state of perpetual terror or fear. If the political entity itself becomes a source of terror and fear, then that entity is no longer legitimate and thus no longer political. Williams describes the essential fact that a political entity must be legitimate to count as political, to count as a solution to the problem of the ubiquitous terror or fear of the pre-political situation, as the Basic Legitimation Demand (BLD). A properly realist political theorist can thus utilize this principle, the BLD, to determine which actual existing political entities are legitimate or not.

Legitimacy is a matter of acceptability. The question is this: do the governed find acceptable and thus actually accept the order provided by those that govern them? Indeed, the question of acceptability is often the question of whether order and security has been provided at all in the first place. For Williams, any political entity owes an explanation and justification for its use of power in providing order to anyone over whom it rules. According to any ruler, they are in a position to rightfully coerce anyone who falls under their jurisdiction. But this means they must also provide a justification to anyone they regard as falling under their jurisdiction of rightful coercion. Williams argues the justifications offered by a political entity succeed or fail based on whether or not those to whom the justifications are offered regard themselves as sufficiently protected from their worst fears being realized. To have one’s worst fears realized is to be, what Williams calls, ‘radically disadvantaged.’ To be ‘radically disadvantaged’ is to be victim to coercion, pain, torture, humiliation, suffering, and death inflicted upon one by the very entity that is structurally meant to provide protection from these very phenomena. If any political entity renders its members radically disadvantaged, if it realizes their worst fears and so terrorizes them, it is thereby no longer legitimate, that is, its claims to rightful coercion are no longer acceptable.

For Williams, any political entity that fails to meet the BLD is no longer in a political condition with its members. Rather, they have returned to the state of nature. An illegitimate political entity is actually in internalized warfare with its own members. Such a condition is no longer properly political, but martial. This entails that those who regard their political entity as failing to meet the BLD are under no obligation to obey it. The deal is off. The political entity provides no protection, but rather realizes the worst fears of the radically disadvantaged. Therefore, no one is under any obligation to obey such an entity. Open revolt is perhaps the only fitting response to internalized warfare. With neither protection nor obedience exchanged, the pre-political condition of perpetual mistrust, insecurity, fear, and violence returns. Nothing can be said that would render normal political speech tenable or effective. The party terrorizing the other would simply need to cease its activities for the possibility of political reality to reemerge.

By now it may be obvious that I think we can safely apply Williams’s conception of the BLD to the recent and present poisonings of schoolgirls in Iran. By either permitting, condoning, or simply executing the deeds themselves, the Islamic Republic of Iran places its own citizens in the position of being radically disadvantaged. This is to say that the present regime in Iran is illegitimate because it terrorizes its own people through either mere incompetence or active, malicious violence. Iran has no justification to offer its people as to why its schoolgirls are poisoned. Thus, there is nothing for those trapped in Iran to accept.

Open revolt in the form of mass protests is the only fair response to a state engaging in internalized warfare against its own citizens. The deal is off. Iran does not protect its own members, especially its most marginalized and oppressed. Rather, it aims to harm them and realize their worst fears. In response to an illegitimate situation, no obedience is to be expected. If Iran permits the poisoning of its children, or even simply poisons them itself, then that means the present regime would rather try its luck in surviving an actual conflict with its own people than be legitimate. Exchanging legitimacy for survival is not a political act, but a militant one.

There is nothing the Iranian regime can say to its people that would gain their permission, or actions as acceptable, legitimate, or justified. None of this is to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran needs to liberalize in order to regain legitimacy, even if that may also be true in some sense. What it is to say is that when any political entity terrorizes its own members, it is no longer acting in the condition of proffered peace or security, but rather warfare. We can now thus answer our original question concerning the relationship of the poisoned victims, and those who poison them or permit their poisoning: they are in relationship of combat. They are in a condition of war.

A Kurdish schoolgirl and the Islamic Republic of Iran are enemies. Their mutual existence amounts to an incompatibility.

The former can do whatever it takes to survive the latter just as much the latter can exchange legitimacy for survival. Such is the condition agents are in when they are no longer in the business of exchanging protection for obedience. Iran is illegitimate, so its (former) members are in revolt. It would be wise for the victims and families of the victims of these poisonings to take this political realist approach offered by Williams, especially the Kurdish victims given their increased state of oppression in Iran. It could save their lives.


  • Rojin Mukriyan

    Rojin Mukriyan is a PhD candidate in the department of Government and Politics at University College Cork, Ireland. Her main research areas includes political theory and Middle Eastern politics, especially Kurdish politics. She has published articles in the Journal of International Political Theory, Philosophy and Social Criticism, and Theoria. Her research has thus far focused on the areas of Kurdish liberty, Kurdish statehood, and Kurdish political friendship. She is also currently a researcher at Mojust.org

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