MUCH OF THE power struggle in Iran between reformist president Mohammed Khatemi and his hard-line clerical opposition is hard for outsiders to follow. But the fluctuating fortunes of Iranian newspapers and journalists in the Khatemi era offer one visible -- and frequently alarming -- index of this complicated battle. A new report from Human Rights Watch underlines the fragility of the apparent loosening of press controls that has marked the Khatemi presidency. Attacks on the press have escalated lately as moderates and hard-liners scramble in advance of February parliamentary elections.

The once tightly controlled Iranian press has gained room since Mr. Khatemi took office. But its status remains ambiguous. Dozens of new publications have sprung up and have engaged in lively criticism, but they lack legal protection and are subject to closure, indictment and physical attack by parts of the government not answerable to Mr. Khatemi.

Some broad prohibitions in law against free expression translate to constant vulnerability as the boundaries of acceptable expression shift with political crosscurrents. Journalists may be tried in special "press courts" or in clerical proceedings without due process. One daily newspaper cited in the Human Rights Watch report, Jame'eh, was ordered closed after publishing an article on the high cost of prison food, a quotation that a Revolutionary Guard general deemed unflattering and a photograph of deposed past president Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr.

The plight of the press has engaged a wider Iranian public. The closing of the daily Salam was the flash point for protests and brutal counter-riots in Tehran in July. Journalists' visibility makes them easy proxies for the forces fighting over Iran's future. More visibility, with international pressure, is needed to reduce the likelihood that they will become even more than now the struggle's casualties.