WHY SHOULD an intelligent woman want to exhange an interesting career and a comfortable life in Washington for the uncertain prospect of spending years in a strange country as the unpaid and hardworking wife of an American ambassador? To the uninitiated, diplomatic life abroad in 1972 might appear glamourous. The thought of dining with kings, conversing with prime ministers and living in "the grand manner" can be mesmerizing. But Cynthia Helms was far to experienced to have any such illusions. As the wife of Richard Helms, the outgoing Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, she had had ample experience of official social life. For her, encounters with the famous were no novelty. Besides, she was already aware that managing an official residence abroad was as burdensome as running a hotel.

Nor was there any need to occupy her time or exercise her talents. She had been holding an intellectually rewarding job doing radio programs for the Smithsonian, which were broadcast over 150 stations across the country and on the Armed Forces Radio overseas.

She was also aware of the danger of possible assassination or kidnapping by terrorists in Iran. An attempt had been made on the life of a previous American ambassador. The State Department had pointedly reminded her husband that if he were seized, no ransom could be guaranteed.

So why did she go? She answers that question in An Ambassador's Wife in Iran. Cynthia Helms could have persuaded her husband that the assignment was an unnecessary postponement of his proposed retirement. She chose instead to support him in part because she was tempted -- despite the risks -- by the adventure of exploring Persian culture. As the wife of the ambassador she could travel and meet all manner of people throughout the country, savor their cultureal riches and idiosyncracies. Her recollections add fresh insights to the recent excruciating confrontation between Iran and the United States.

The book is a personal, anecdotal account of Cynthia Helm's experiences in Iran from the spring of 1972 until the fall of 1976. Throughout there are penetrating insights into the personalities of Iranian and American leaders as well as into the forces which swept the Pahlavi monarchy into exile and the country into turmoil. She does not attempt political analysis, but readers willing to try and understand what has happened in Iran will be rewarded. Her intuitions, even though enriched by hindsight, are illuminating. A postscript, entitled "Fallen Monarch," which describes a final visit with the shah in a New York hospital in 1979, is in itself a compelling reason to read the book.

Those who enjoy adventure will be pleased with her thumbnail sketches of remote an rugged areas of Iran on visits to archeological digs, nomadic tribes, Zoroastrian towers of silence, pilgrim ceremonies at the great mosque of Mashhad. Others will relish vignettes of dinner at the palace and the White House and of entertaining VIP houseguests (including the Kissingers and Rockefellers). She also describes having tea with rug merchants. Cynthia Helms' tastes are catholic, her mind is sharp and her spirit intrepid. The book does not lack zest.

She leaves little doubt about how positively she assesses her tour. To be sure, she found supervising the residence staff, keeping accounts and marketing for large numbers (her table seated 36) far more time-consuming than she had anticipated. Endless diplomatic social functions were also a drain. But she managed these demands with efficiency and humor. She was concerned too for the morale of American personnel serving in Iran and tried hard to make everyone feel needed and appreciated. She became involved in community work and took on a demanding responsibility with the Board of Trustees of Damavand College. But she still had the energy for daily tea and tennis with her husband after his work at the chancery and before their evening social demands. And she made time to work intensely with a language tutor, study Persian poetry, attend classes in Islamic philosophy at Tehran University and translate Persian folk tales; time to wander through the city "intoxicated by the sights and babble"; time for seeking out interesting scholars; and time to develop friendships with a variety of Iranians -- merchants, students and professional people.

In view of the many distractions in her life, it is remarkable that she kept so clearly in mind the goal she had first set for herself: "I soon decided that that which I could do best as the ambassador's wife and still be helpful to Dick was in areas not directly related to government business. An ambassador needs to stay informed about his host country and what I could do -- and what I delighted in doing because I wanted to learn -- was to expand our awareness of Iranian culture." She will do the same for readers who spend an hour or two in the company of this self-effacing, gracious and discerning woman.