Authorities in Tehran are attempting to break a strike by bus workers that has hampered transportation in the capital and threatens to merge with separate antigovernment protests around the country calling for the end of Iran's clerical regime amid a worsening economic situation.
Bus drivers and other employees of the Tehran Bus Company have held strikes since May 16, fueling a transportation crisis that has led the city to use police buses and drivers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a powerful branch of the military, to keep routes open.
It was unclear if there were public rallies on May 18. But the bus employees, angered by the government's failure to deliver fully on a promised wage hike and undeterred by the arrest of their union leader as well as 12 strikers, have vowed to continue their protests until municipal authorities pay up.
Having received just 10 percent of a pledged 40 percent wage hike, they are now demanding a 57 percent raise, along with the release of Reza Shahibi, who was arrested at his home on May 10 by Intelligence Ministry officers shortly after publicly calling on the authorities to investigate death threats against him and his family.
On May 17, state television alleged that Shahibi and other labor activists had met with two French nationals -- 37-year-old Cecil Kohler and her 69-year-old partner, Jacques Paris -- who were arrested the day after Shahibi and accused of seeking to stir up unrest in Iran.
The allegations come as the country's security forces have resorted to force to suppress anti-government protests in cities outside Tehran against skyrocketing inflation and the government's recent decision to cut some subsidies, leading to the reported deaths of at least five demonstrators.
The union representing the striking bus workers on May 17 accused the authorities of "trying to break the strike by intimidating and in some cases persecuting and arresting workers."
In an apparent reference to the anti-government demonstrations, the Free Trade Union of Iran also said on Twitter that "the government is looking for a permanent solution; i.e., repression, prosecution, arrest, spreading lies" to quell the unrest.
The bus strike is widely seen as separate from the street protests over the country's worsening economic situation, some of whom have chanted for the end of the clerical regime.
But observers have suggested that Tehran is eager to prevent the two protests from merging, and have questioned the veracity of the city's announcement on May 17 that it was closing schools and government offices due to high air-pollution levels.
"The strike has faced the government with a real challenge," labor activist Payman Shajirati told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "Although the government closed down schools and offices, claiming air pollution as the reason, traffic throughout the city was heavily affected."
The activist, who lives outside Iran, said there is a possibility that the strike could spread to include subway and other transportation workers in the city, and added that other laborers could join the protest.
Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani, who appeared at protests in front of the Tehran Bus Company's central headquarters on May 17, was met with chants calling him incompetent and demanding that he and the director of the syndicate resign.
Discussions with protest leaders were later described by Zakani's office as "fruitless."
Gholamreza Gholamhosseini, a former employee of the Tehran Bus Company who now lives in Canada, told Radio Farda that bus workers appeared to be committed to going through with their strike until their demands are met.
"It is usual for the Iranian government not to fulfill its responsibilities. It always resorts to harsh methods to crack down on protests by beating them [demonstrators] up, torturing and detaining them," Gholamhosseini said. "But workers have gotten so poor that they are fighting for their livelihoods, and they do not simply care about crackdowns anymore."
The anti-government protests that began last week in the southwestern province of Khuzestan have spread, with participants chanting for the ouster of hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is expected to meet with parliament as it continues to hammer out next year's budget.
The protests were sparked by outrage over the recent removal of subsidies on basic food items that have sent prices skyrocketing. The price hikes have compounded the economic difficulties faced by Iranians already hit by a 40 percent inflation rate, rising unemployment, and shortages of necessities such as cooking oil and pharmaceuticals.
During his Norouz address on March 20, Khamenei singled out "poverty, high prices, and inflation" as the most pressing problems being faced by Iranians. But he said solving them soon was "unrealistic."
The government's unexpected decision to end subsidies for imported wheat, which in turn raised prices for industrial food producers and consumers, led even hard-line backers of the clerical regime to warn of the potential for unrest.
As those fears have come to fruition, the government has reportedly cut off the Internet in the Shahrekord, the capital of the western Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, where the five protesters were reportedly killed. There have also been reports of raids and beatings of activists in the southwestern Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province.
Security forces have also reportedly detained demonstrators in major populations centers such as the northwestern cities of Zanjan and Mashhad and in the southwestern city of Shiraz. On the evening of May 17, the protests expanded to Golpayegan, in the north of the country's central Isfahan Province.
The violence against protestors has been criticized by rights watchdogs and foreign countries, including the United States, which said on May 16 that it supported Iranians' rights to peaceful assembly "without fear of violence and reprisal."
On May 17, a group of more than 500 prominent Iranian civil and political activists issued a statement calling on top officials to "think before it is too late to contain problems, especially staggering inflation."
The "unsettled and complicated" situation the country finds itself in, the statement added, was the inevitable result of "the majority of the nation's elected officials not being approved by the people," an apparent reference to the Guardians Council's preeminent role in vetting political candidates and in interpreting Islamic law.