President Mohammad Khatami warned of a social explosion in Iran if hard-liners in the government continue to stifle student dissent, the official news agency reported Monday.

"When the (hard-line) establishment acts badly and is not responsive, gradually criticism turns into protest," Khatami told university officials and students, the Islamic Republic News Agency said.

"When universities protest against the establishment, it should be understood that there is a deficiency in the society," he said in the comments Sunday. "In a healthy society, opposition is recognized officially, legally and safely."

After Khatami's landslide victory in 1997, students regularly held street rallies against hard-liners, demanding faster implementation of social and political reforms.

More than two dozen students have remained behind bars since July 1999, when they were arrested for peacefully protesting the closure of a leading reformist newspaper. The protest was crushed by police and hard-line vigilantes. Afterward, vigilantes backed by police raided a student dormitory, leaving one student dead and triggering the widest unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But since late last year, there have been no large street protests by students, largely because of fears that participants will be arrested and because authorities have denied requests for permission to hold such rallies.

In his remarks, Khatami said fear and disappointment have quieted students. But he warned that their complaints "will not disappear and will emerge later in the form of an explosion."

Khatami's comments reflect an ongoing power struggle between the reformist camp he leads and hard-liners, who have used their control over the judiciary, police and other unelected bodies to curb his plans to ease social and political restrictions.

After losing control of parliament in elections last year, hard-liners have been trying to reassert their power, closing down reformist publications and jailing prominent reformist journalists and activists.

On Monday, the reformist-dominated Parliament called for an end to the prosecution of legislators, saying the courts should respect their immunity as spelled out in the constitution. Iran's courts are controlled largely by the conservatives.

The statement issued by the legislature's presiding board came days after the Appeal Court upheld a seven-month prison term against lawmaker Mohammad Dadfar, who had been convicted of insulting authorities and spreading lies to disturb public opinion.

Also Monday, Deputy Culture Minister Shaban Shahidi was quoted as saying that the judiciary's temporary closure in the past 20 months of 56 publications, including 24 daily newspapers, was a "disaster."

Shahidi said international human rights groups have condemned Iran for the closures and other curbs on freedoms, according to the daily Nowruz.