At newsstands across Tehran, Iranians gather to read the latest salvos in the newspaper wars, a fight shaping up to be as critical to Iran's future as it is entertaining. The highly partisan newspapers are taking center stage in the struggle between supporters of the reform-minded president, Mohammed Khatemi, and his powerful opponents in the conservative Islamic hierarchy.

To the delight of readers, the newspapers trade insults like schoolchildren, debate ideas like college professors and embrace platforms like political parties. The reformist daily Neshat calls the conservative Kayhan "shameless." Conservative papers say Neshat is an American-sponsored tool intent on destroying Iran. Kayhan calls the three leading reformist dailies "the Zionist triad." The leftist daily Sobh-e-Emrooz and the conservative Resalat tear each other apart in editorial columns.

Since Khatemi's election two years ago, press licenses have been granted liberally, spawning a proliferation of new publications and raising the total of national daily newspapers to 26. A half-dozen promote hard-line conservative views and another half-dozen boost Khatemi, who has made press freedom one of his rallying cries. Others are nonpartisan.

Although circulation figures generally are secret here, the stridently political papers seem to be the ones drawing the reading public's attention.

Most newspapers are affiliated with government agencies, but that does not guarantee they are on the same side. Kayhan and Ettelaat, for instance, were confiscated after the 1979 revolution and their directors are named directly by the conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Hamshahri is owned by the Tehran municipality and supports Khatemi and his reforms.

Some papers are privately owned: Neshat, Kordad and Sobh-e-Emrooz all follow a reformist line, while Resalat is conservative.

"We know that we are more than just passive observers of the current political debate. We are active players," said Dariush Sajjaddi, a reformist Iranian journalist.

"We are all openly advocating our ideas. There is no objectivity here," agreed a conservative journalist who asked not to be named.

The conservative establishment often finds the public jousting disturbing; the conservative-dominated judiciary has closed some publications and jailed their management. Recently, editors of a few conservative publications also have faced questioning.

Iran's conservative parliament is pushing for legislation that would seriously undermine press freedoms.

"It has been a conservative strategy to silence the pro-Khatemi press because they know these newspapers form the backbone of his reformist policies," said Amirali Nourbaksh, a Tehran political observer and editor of a weekly Iranian press review.

The recent student protests that rocked Iran were triggered by a violent encounter following demonstrations against the closing of the daily Salam, a powerful pro-Khatemi newspaper. The closing of Salam, a venerable old leftist paper published by a powerful and well-connected clergyman, was seen by reformists as a serious blow to their cause.

"In the absence of political parties, newspapers have taken on that role, so the closing of Salam was seen as an attack on the reformists," Nourbaksh said.

The story of Neshat newspaper is particularly illustrative. When Neshat's publisher Hamid Reza Jalaipour tried to form a political party of reformist religious intellectuals two years ago, he was denied a license. "Instead," Jalaipour says, "I saw that press licenses were easier to get so I opened a newspaper."

His newspaper, Jameah, rocketed to popularity with bold reporting on subjects formerly considered taboo, such as questioning the authority of Iran's supreme leader, Khamenei, and open support for Khatemi. Iran's conservatives went on the offensive, closing down Jameah and jailing Jalaipour and his editor on charges of disrupting public order.

Undeterred, Jalaipour and his colleagues opened another newspaper with the same platform and a different name. Soon enough, that daily, Toos, also was shut down. Neshat is the latest incarnation of the embattled paper, which calls for tolerance, dialogue, civil society and political parties.

Jalaipour, his editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, and his wildly popular political satirist Ebrahim Nabavi have all been jailed, interrogated and threatened. Nabavi is a particularly prickly thorn in the conservatives' side. His daily satirical column aimed at his conservative opponents is widely read, and a book of his recent columns is a national bestseller.

Still, even in Tehran's highly politicized environment, old journalism truths remain. The newspaper that sells the most copies is Hamshahri, which claims a circulation of 460,000. The reason? It carries the most comprehensive classified advertising.