President Carter and the American intelligence community have been sharply criticized for their failure to foresee that the shah of Iran was about to be toppled from his throne.

Interesting background on this point was contained in a revealing dispatch credited to the Sunday Times of London and King Features. We published it in yesterday's editions.

After former shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled to Mexico and was still in that country, he was interviewed by Frank Giles of the Sunday Times.

Pahlavi told Giles that the Iranian revolution was "unnatural and unpredictable." He said that almost until the end of his reign, huge throngs had acclaimed him in the streets.

Why, then, had the situation gotten out of hand? Pahlavi said, "The liberalization measures I had introduced helped to light the flames."

Neither Pahlavi nor Carter nor the CIA had recognized a syndrome that should have been familiar to them.

When a nation is under the rule of a dictatorial regime, the dictator is accorded great deference in direct encounters with most of those over whom he holds power. It is known that any person who expresses opposition risks swift and severe punishment.

In private the dictator's unhappy subjects may be plotting his overthrow, but in public they dutifully do what is expected of them. In Germany, they snapped to attention and cried, "Heil Hitler." Even an invading army is cheered by crowds that line the streets as the conquering tanks roll into town.

It should therefore have been obvious that cheering crowds in the streets did not necessarily mean that the shah's position was secure. Our intelligence apparatus should have been able to discern what was really going on in Iran.

More important, perhaps, both we and Pahlavi should have been aware that when a dictatorial regime begins a belated program of liberalization, many brave souls will attempt to test the limits of their newly bestowed freedoms. The dictator who tells his people they may now speak their minds with greater freedom is likely to find that the first words of the liberated are, "Let's get rid of this bum."

The Soviet Union's leaders have also been surprised to find that liberalization is a dangerous course in a regime whose leaders want to retain ultimate poer in their own hands. This is a lesson that apparently must be learned anew by every generation of tyrants.

The seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the events that followed have served to remind us of another recurrinmg theme.

First the ayatollah's revolutionary regime inflamed public opinion against the United States and sparked the takeover of our embassy. Whether directly or indirectly, the Iranian government created the mob that entered the embassy.

Later, when it suited the Iranian government's purpose to change course, release some hostages and alter the terms for releasing the remainder, it was discovered that the mob inside the embassy had been too deeply steeped in anti-American propaganda. It had formed its own ideas as to what should be done.

Apparently just as surprised by an unnatural and unpredictable turn of events as the shah had been, the ayatollah became ill and fatigued, and announced that he was canceling all appointments for a couple of weeks to recuperate, and perhaps to think about his next move. He had found that it is easier to propagandize and program a mass of people than it is to depropagandize and deprogram them. Once you condition people to be fanatics, they're too fanatical to obey subsequent instructions.

It is a pity that the lessons of the past are so quickly forgotten. If would-be dictators were required to study history, perhaps fewer people would want to become dictators. "He who rides a tiger has trouble dismounting." YOUNGER SET

Talk among a group of my cronies had turned to children and the raising thereof.

One man said, "The other day my wife was chastising our little girl for being cross and short-tempered, and the kid snapped back, 'How come when I do it, it's my temper, but when you do it, it's nerves?'"

Another man nodded in sympathy. Then he said, "They can be quite a trial, but I must say I had one pleasant experience recently. My daughter called from college last week, and the call wasn't collect! Maybe she finally found out I don't have an 800 number."

The first man sighed. "My eldest is in college, too," he said, "but he hasn't called in months, thank God. That means he's not in trouble." THESE MODERN TIMES

Latest bumper sticker, reported by Don Epperson: "Get High On Milk. My Cow Is On Grass."