It was a one-act satirical play that never made it to the stage, but it was printed in an obscure university publication and distributed in photocopies. But because of it, the writer is in custody, the culture minister is under fire, conservative newspapers are incensed and President Mohammed Khatemi's policy of freedom of expression is taking a beating.

The play's author, a student named Abbas Nemati, is to some Iranians a potential heretic who should be tried in an Islamic court and perhaps executed. To others, he is an unwitting victim in the struggle between Khatemi's reformist supporters and his conservative opponents. Whatever the case, the uproar reflects the atmosphere of accusation and counter-accusation enveloping Iran and illuminates the main battlefronts--bureaucratic and ideological--on which reformers and conservatives wage their battles.

Both sides employ the bureaucratic tools at their disposal to gain advantages. Conservatives, who control key levers of power, including parliament and internal security, have resisted many of Khatemi's reforms, particularly the moderate cleric's promotion of free speech. The reformers, for their part, use government ministries and popular pro-Khatemi newspapers to boost their program.

The result is a seemingly endless series of high-profile clashes, magnified by a raucous press, with the student play crisis merely the latest.

Last week, a conservative press court sentenced leading reformist newspaper publisher Latif Safari to two years in prison for "insulting Islamic sanctities." The reformist press was enraged, conservative papers were delighted and politicians, conservative as well as reformist, commented liberally on the decision.

But the editors said they plan to ignore the court and open a new paper with the same platform and ideology, getting a new permit from the reform-minded Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. "They can keep trying to close our newspaper, but we will keep writing," said editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, who has worked on three banned papers.

By now, he is familiar with the routine: A conservative court bans his paper, the Culture Ministry gives him a new permit, he goes back to work.

This is possible because press freedoms have improved measurably since Khatemi's election two years ago and, under the Culture Ministry, the permits are more readily granted. As a result, an active pro-Khatemi press has appeared, angering many conservatives.

And the student's script plays to conservatives' worst fears as the liberalization unfolds: an unencumbered press leading to an environment conducive to what they see as public questioning of Islamic strictures and beliefs.

The short play, with an initial printing of 150 copies, describes a young man's fictional encounter with a sacred Shiite religious figure, the Imam-e-Zaman, who is believed to have disappeared from earth 1,125 years ago to return one day as a justice-bearing messiah. In the play, the Imam-e-Zaman returns and recruits the main character, Abbas, to join him in his quest to restore justice to the world. Abbas refuses, saying he is too busy preparing college entrance examinations, leading to a verbal confrontation in language that some conservatives, and many reformists, view as sacrilegious.

Seizing on the play as an inevitable result of Khatemi's openness policy, conservatives went on the offensive. Conservative papers blasted Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, who oversees the press, and called on Khatemi to restrain "mercenary pens" who are "enemies of Islam."

A senior conservative cleric, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, wrote an open letter to Mohajerani criticizing his policies. A group of conservative college students took to the streets outside Tehran University, demonstrating against the script and draping the tree-lined campus of nearby Amir Kabir University with black banners to symbolize mourning.

The reformists, including Khatemi, countered by denouncing the script's contents, but criticized what they view as a conservative attempt to create a national crisis from a small, insignificant student publication.

"There is a rigid-minded group that sees its existence as dependent on the people's ignorance," Khatemi told thousands of students gathered today to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Iran's late supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "They think the more ignorant a society, the more it protects the religion. They try to inculcate the belief that learning is against religion."

But according to an Associated Press account of his speech, Khatemi also warned against what he called a "foreign-inspired current that seeks to put universities against people's religious faith."

As sensationalist newspaper headlines fuel the clashes, several sober political analysts are, ironically, pointing to a new era of cooperation between Khatemi and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is widely viewed as a conservative. Khamenei recently announced his full support for Khatemi amid a series of hard-line attacks on the president, and he appointed a moderate to the key post of judiciary chief.

A recent hard-line student rally encapsulated the complexity of the emerging Khamenei-Khatemi relationship, as well as Iran's mercurial political climate. After chanting slogans calling for impeachment of two Khatemi ministers, the student leader at the microphone began chanting: "We support our president!"

CAPTION: Tehran University students and members of Islamic groups demonstrate against the publication of a play deemed sacrilegious.