Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Iranian government has once again resorted to suppressing dissent and detaining protesters as it looks to quell discontent over rising prices and workers' rights and low wages.
The rights watchdog said in a statement on May 20 that Iranian authorities have arrested several prominent activists since the protests broke out two weeks ago, including a prominent sociologist and four labor rights defenders.
"The arrests of prominent members of civil society in Iran on baseless accusations of malicious foreign interference is another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country," said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at HRW.
"Instead of looking to civil society for help in understanding and responding to social problems, Iran's government treats them as an inherent threat," she added.
Even though many Iranians are struggling to make ends meet amid a poor economy crushed by U.S. sanctions and years of mismanagement, President Ebrahim Raisi announced earlier this month a series of economic measures, including cutting subsidies and increasing the prices of several staples such as flour and cooking oil.
The move sparked protests in several cities across the country, with security forces arresting dozens of people. Reports say at least five demonstrators have died during the unrest.
Meanwhile, 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.
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.
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.
Authorities have also cut Internet services in many areas to try and keep the protests from spreading further.
"Iranian authorities have long sought to criminalize solidarity among members of civil society groups inside and outside the country," Sepehri Far said.
"The intention is to prevent accountability and scrutiny of state actions that civil society provides."