THE WHITE HOUSE analysis of the Iranian crisis over the past few months may go down in history as one of the great failures of American intelligence, not in the technical but in the general sense of the word. So concentrated have Zbigniew Brzezinski and the others been on their own policy of support for the shah that they did not consider the possibility of an anti-shah movement before it began and then, once it had started, failed to take it seriously enough.

The attempt of White House officials to lay the blame on CIA intelligence in the technical sense only shows how deep their ignorance goes. For to suppose that the CIA could have predicted the time and place of the first demonstrations and identified the masterminds behind the uprising is to misunderstand the whole nature of the antishah revolt.

In the first place, the uprising in Iran was almost entirely spontaneous. The Shiite religious leaders -- the mujtahids -- provided some tactical management, but they did not control the rebellion: They could not have, for in the cities, at least, it was so general as to leave almost no one on the side of the shah. After some months of demonstrations the shah was asked what his political base was and he replied, "Damned if I know."

The revolt was not masterminded by the mujtahids, nor was it even really of their inspiration. The revolt was, in fact, much like the Buddhist uprising against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963: A groundswell of resentment against a corrupt, incompetent and isolated dictatorship supported from abroad coalesced around the leaders of the majority religion. The Iranians, like the Vietnamese of the cities, looked to the religious leaders not merely for the negative reason that the dictatorship had silenced the political opposition. The mujtahids represented firm moral standards, tradition -- or the attachment of the society to its own past -- an ideal of brotherhood, and thus a means to cooperation, and finally, the spirit of Iranian nationalism.

All these things were important in 1978, since what the city people had suffered under the shah was not totalitarian order but anarchy and lack of control over their own lives as well as over the society. The tide of new money had broken up the traditional social order and cut its ties with the past; it had pushed the country people into the cities and left them to a frantic, lawless competition for survival. While the shah, unable to manage his own society, had brought foreigners in to run the key sectors of the economy, the mujtahids had found and created a mass following. They were sensitive to public opinion in the way that the shah was not because, financially and otherwise, they depended on the people for their survival.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN next in Iran is not an easy question to answer, for beyond the current uncertainties about the shah's vacation plans, the ranking officers have not declared themselves and the rebellion has yet to take on a solid political shape. The new prime minister, Shahpur Bakhtiar, has promised elections and a constitutional monarchy in which the power rests with a national legislature. It would be ironic if the anti-shah forces created what the American supporters of the shah from President Carter to Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan claimed to want for Iran and all Third World countries: democratic institutions. But there is some possibility they may succeed in doing that, whether it is with Bakhtiar or someone else. Iran, after all, has had a constitution since 1906, and, until the 1953 coup that brought the shah to power, it had mass-based political parties and a national legislature that governed the country.

Then, too, the country has been politically mobilized for many months now; the hundreds of thousands of strikers and demonstrators have shown a degree of discipline that would be remarkable in any "developed" country that had strong unions and political parties. The civilians who have brought one military government to a standstill could do the same for another.

Also, the rebellion has not yet created or shed light on any serious social divisions between, say, rich and poor, city and country, or one region and another. The shah's forced-march "modernization" -- or urbanization -- policy may have worked to grind down those class and regional differences that did exist. Finally, many Iranians have, through experience, come to understand a fact of practical politics that American policy makers never seemed to grasp: One-man rule is an unstable form of government, even by the laws of probability.

The difficulties Bakhtiar or any other civilian prime minister will face in trying to create a representative government are, of course, formidable. In the foreground the obstacles are the generals currently in power, who under a civilian government could never have the power, the array of military machinery or the license to steal that they had under the shah.These gentlemen will not happily preside over their own disestablishment.

What they may well be waiting for is an American signal to go ahead with a Pinochet-type coup, followed by a really bloody repression. The Carter administration does not seem to favor this kind of action at the moment. Two weeks ago it apparently brought the most trigger-happy of the generals to the United States. But if the chaos in Iran should continue to increase, Washington might conceivably be tempted to give that signal. American officials could hardly fail to be aware of the stirrings of such a coup, for while they may not know the religious dignitaries, they know the generals and their civilian advisers, such as Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi, extremely well.

Another order of difficulty for Bakhtiar, or any divilian prime minister, lies in the incoherence of Iranian political life. For the past 25, but particularly for the past 15, years there has been no political discourse in Iran except for the Alice-in-Wonderland rhetoric of the "Shah and People's Revolution." Now that the censorship has been removed, the Iranians have found themselves with no common language to discuss the state of the nation. The language of the mujtahids has -- demonstrably -- a great deal of resonance in Iran, but it refers to a sphere of reality quite different from that of Eurodollar credits and communications satellites. Ayatollah Khomeini and others have made an effort to bring the two worlds together.But if Khomeini believes Bakhtiar is Satan, they have clearly not succeeded.

Twenty-five years ago the secular interests of the Moslem leaders and their urban faithful were represented by Mossadegh's National Front Party. A number of the National Front leaders have emerged during the current uprising, but they no longer have any organization or mass following. Their nationalism has not gone out of date, but they are men of a certain age who speak the old-fashioned language of the bazaaris -- the shopkeepers -- and not that of the oil cartels. The children of these shopkeepers, on the other hand -- and particularly the thousands upon thousands of them who have studied abroad -- speak every conceivable international tongue from the language of the Harvard Business School to that of the Palestinian guerrillas. The middle class has become a Tower of Babel, and these children resent it. While they speak to the modern world, they feel a sense of guilt at their alienation from their own country. These days the women students in Tehran universities put chadors over their short skirts, unable for the moment to decide which one is real.

A civilian government may in the end forge a common language, or allow the country to settle upon one, but it is a long process. There will thus be no "stability" of the sort favored by American companies for some time to come, unless the turmoil becomes so acute that it makes a military strong man promising order and social justice seem preferable to the majority. Not the politics of Iran but the structure of the economy will continue to tempt Iranian officers to make a coup, for while oil remains the revenue-producing industry and while the oil revenues flow straight into the national treasury, those guarding the treasury will always have a huge advantage over everyone else.

The United States cannot control events in Iran, but it can influence them, if only negatively. At the moment the most positive thing foreign policy makers might do is nothing; that is, stop backing and filling around the shah and the "formula" of a constitutional monarchy and come out for an Iranian government chosen by the Iranian people. If they did this, they would not only be breaking the long tradition of hypocrisy vis-a-vis American dependencies in the Third World but they would be serving the national interests of the United States. Iran needs the United States and the rest of the industrialized West to buy its oil, to provide development technology and to insure its long border with the Soviet Union, and only a regime that believes it has come to power in spite of the United States could possibly think otherwise.