Iran's Supreme Court has revoked the death sentence imposed on a dissident academic that set off the country's largest pro-reform protests in three years, the official news agency reported today.

Hashem Aghajari, a university lecturer, was condemned to death in November by a hard-line regional court for questioning clerical rule in a speech. Students led almost two months of daily protests that denounced his treatment.

"The death sentence against Hashem Aghajari has been overturned by the Supreme Court," Ayatollah Mohammad Sajjadi, one of four Supreme Court judges who reviewed the sentence, was quoted as saying by the Islamic Revolutionary News Agency. Sajjadi said three of the four Supreme Court judges voted to overturn the death sentence. He said the original sentence contravened legal principles, the agency reported.

While the decision to lift the death sentence had been widely expected, many analysts have said they believe the verdict will be watered down to a heavy jail term and a ban on teaching. Aghajari's attorney, Saleh Nikbakht, said the case would be sent back to a court in Hamadan, the western city where Aghajari was convicted, for a new sentence.

"I hope that the final ruling acquits him. Any other ruling other than an acquittal is unacceptable, and I would file another appeal," he said.

Aghajari said in his speech that Muslims are not "monkeys" meant to blindly follow the teachings of senior clerics, such as those who run Iran. His comments turned him into a cause celebre for the Islamic Republic's embattled reformists.

Aghajari, a war veteran who lost a leg fighting against Iraq in the 1980-88 war, struck a chord particularly with young Iranians, saying Islam should be interpreted by each new generation, not the clerical hierarchy.

Prof. Hashem Aghajari criticized Iran's clerical hierarchy, gaining a following among Iranian college students and reformers.