Abdollah Nouri, a powerful and popular reformist cleric, does not act like a man facing career-threatening charges in an Islamic court. His demeanor is calm, his voice steady and his remarks quietly defiant.

"The charges leveled against me are baseless. They are merely a political statement issued by one group against their rival," Nouri said softly in an interview, stroking his salt and pepper beard. "I view the court's action as illegal, and I do not even accept the legitimacy of the court."

Nouri is widely considered the most powerful political leader, after President Mohammed Khatemi, in Iran's nascent democracy movement. His speeches, including one Tuesday at Tehran University, always include calls for democratic reform, and he rarely pulls punches in his criticism of Iran's conservative clerics.

"Iranian society feels that there is a connection between the indictment and my potential parliament candidacy," Nouri said in the interview.

Nouri is fighting for his political life in a showdown with his conservative rivals in a special court for the clergy. He is charged with "insulting Islamic sanctities," supporting a dissident cleric, "disturbing public opinion" and a catalogue of other serious crimes. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to pay a heavy fine and a serve a long jail term that could sideline him from politics and force closure of his reformist newspaper, Khordad.

Since Khatemi's election more than two years ago, Iran's conservatives, who still control key levers of power, have been locked in a fierce struggle with reformists.

As Khatemi's minister of the interior, Nouri angered conservatives by freely granting protest permits to reformist student groups. As a result, he was impeached by Iran's conservative-led parliament in June 1998. In the interview Monday at the Khordad offices, Nouri said conservative attacks on him smack of "despotism and dictatorship."

Widely respected among reformist factions in Iran, Nouri is believed to be making a bid for the parliament speakership. If he is allowed to run in February's election, most independent analysts agree he would defeat his opponents handily. But the influential, conservative-led Guardian Council, which has the right to reject parliamentary candidates, could use a negative court verdict to deny Nouri the right to run.

"Even if the court issues a negative verdict against me, I will do whatever is within my means to become a candidate in the next parliamentary elections," Nouri said in his office, where aides gathered around a nearby table poring over the cleric's defense statement.

Iran's parliament, with its slim conservative majority, has been a major obstacle to Khatemi's reform efforts. Conservative moves to discredit Nouri, however, have only stoked his popularity.

Iranians, frustrated by social and political restrictions, voted overwhelmingly for Khatemi and his political and social liberalization platform in May 1997. Seeing the charges against Nouri as a direct assault on the popular Khatemi, voters elected Nouri overwhelmingly in recent Tehran city council elections.

Despite the court case against him, Nouri said he is optimistic about prospects for democratic reform in Iran.

"The democratic trend in Iran is irreversible," he said. "There are some obstacles in the way, and there may be delays due to the resistance of some forces, but, ultimately, we will move in the direction of democratic reform."

CAPTION: Abdollah Nouri rarely pulls punches in his criticism of the conservatives who still dominate Iranian politics.