If she did not get treatment quickly, his wife would die, the doctor was telling the peasant.

We were in the room of a hovel in a village near Karaj, Iran. The doctor and I had entered a small, enclosed mud yard that had a row of low sheds at the back. The yard stank of human filth and was a litter of hoes, shovels and farm tools.

Now, inside, the peasant, who must have been 60 and who spoke only Turkish, stood and listened. He wore a sheepskin cap, his earnest, weak eyes had bushy brows, a gray stubble covered his deep-sunk checks. He smiled in a silly, attentive uncomprehending way, showing his bad, gapped teeth.

Nearby, his wife sat at the center of the small, bare floor. A tiny baby rested on her stomach, while another, naked under its dress, moved fidgety and crablike on the floor. There were no furnishings in the room; no tables, no bed, no electric lamps. Weak light came from a kerosene lamp, and a cheap kerosene heater took the chill off the room. The women kept bracing herself upright, her eyes giazed and unseeing away within herself.

The poor villager, who had never traveled much, was talking to a U.S. educated doctor from Tehran who wore $200 suits, owned his own hospital, had two summer houses with swimming pools and made $240,000 a year. Linguistic and cultural differences made the two men unintelligible to each other.

The peasant was speaking making gestures. He had to work at Princess Sham's palace and who would look after the children? His wife could not go to the hospital. The doctor exploded in oaths. She would die, did he understand. The peasant thought, then looked at the doctor shyly and shrugged. "Then she dies."

The shah's government claims that Iran is modernizan rapidly, that, thanks to its new-found oil wealth, it will be on the industrial level as France or West Germany in less than a decade. It is an extravagant claim that overlooks the agricultural, peasant-based, religion-ridden nature of Iranian society. For the majority of Iranians, the pattern of life is changing only very slowly.

Although it is the shah's habit to speak of the "Shah-People Revolution" as if it has fused his nation into a single cohesive mass, there are 61,000 villages just like the one near Karaj. Most lack piped water sanitation, doctors, electricity: the villagers' diet of rice is so poor, the doctor from Tehran said, that people exist on four to five grams of protein a week. People hunt for undigested oats in the droppings of horses.

"It's all skin deep said an Iranian art student in Tehran. Many Iranians feel that the shah underrate the conservative. Third World nature of Iranian society, Iran is a political entity embracing several nationalities - Armenians, Jews, Kurds, Arabs, Turcomans, Azerbiajanis, plus the great Persian tribes; the Lurs at Zagros, the Baktiari near Isfanhan, the Quashqai near Shiraz, the Baluch's to south.

Each of these groups has tenacious loyalties to its own region, customs, traditions and language, and resents its subjugation by Tehran. More than a quarter of the country does not even speak Persion, the sole official national language. Minorities cling instead to one of four major dialects.

Religion has given Iran the only unity its citizens have ever known. It is estimated that 93 per cent of Iranians believe in Islam, 90 per cent of them in the state religion. Shilte Islam.

In 1935, when the present shah's father began building the six wide, asphalted avenues that run from Tehran ("hot place") up the Elborz Mountains to Shemiran ("cool place"), there were religious disturbances. For, according to the Shilte belief, the Shilte messiah, the hidden Eman, had to make his way to his people through the old crooked city streets.

The conservative temper of the populace has not changed much since then. Last year, when the shah changed the calendar from the Islamic one to a system of dating based on the coronation of Cyprus the Great, there were more disturbances. The country's worst riots in 13 years, these were led by religions leaders who equated U.S. aid with Iranian bondage and viewed the shah as an enemy of Islam.

The shah and his father shared the view that Islam stands in the way of Iran's economic development.

The father, Reza Shah, picked a pre-Islamic name, Pahlavi, for his dynasty, forbade women to wear veils, set up secular schools to replace Islamic ones, put French or Belgian civil law in place of religious law.

His son, Mohammed Reza, has tried to be more tactful. He has claimed to have had religious visions, he has visited the Islamic shrines and employs reliable Moslem clergymen at court.

Yet the present shah's policy is basically the same as his father's. He sold the religious-administered lands, imprisoned the religious leaders. To modernize itself, the shah obviously believes, Iran must become secular.

"Pack of lies," said a government chauffeur throwing down a copy of the government newspaper Kahan on the front seat of the Chevrolet.

The shah often claims that the aims of the crown and those of the masses are identical, and appeals to national pride by talking of military might and industrial glory. But it is one things to control the masses through the policy and another thing to mobilize their support for his programs.

Except for modern Turkey, no Moslem government before the shah's every tried to develop European-style nationalism. Historically, Moslems were not political, but religious subjects. There was a great distance between the people and the crown, born of an indifference fostered by religion. "Those who ridicule the one-party system do not realize that under Islam, there was never any kind of legislative process at all," said an Iranian diplomat's wife.

Ostensibly a constutional monarchy, Iran's system is labeled by the shah "progressive" of "national" democracy, as opposed to the weak, Western parliamentary kind. It is supposed to be "a well-ordered political and administrative organization in which the great majority of the Iranian people participate," according to the shah. In reality it is a dynastic dictatorshp, based on police force and plebiscite.

The monarchy does appear to have the support, albeit passive, of the bulk of the people. The shah boasts of this support, pointing to a January 1963 referendam in which 6 million people approved his reforms by a margin of 12 to 1.

But, it is sometimes asked how legitimate is a referendum indicating 93 per cent approved when 80 per cent of the electrate is illiterate? As an Iranian painter noted. "When do the people really speak? It is a statement made in the name of the people. Not by the peoptatement made in the name of the people. Net by the people."

Political parties were completely unknown in Iran until 1949, when the Communists formed the first one, the Masses Party. In 1957 and 1953, the shah established a two-party system. This was mainly a tactic to help obtain U.S. aid, government insiders now concede.

The new one-party state, centered around the National Resurgence Party, was promulgated in March 1975. The joke in Tehran is that before 1975 there was the "yes" party and the "of course" party, and that since both were inefficient the shah decided to transform them into the National Resurgence Party.

A teacher in Tehran complained. There's a new TV show about it every night, to brainwash the public. It's all false. Nobody believes in it, no body. It's one fake pretension after another."

Yet this woman, so firm in her opposition to the shah, said: "Given the mentality of the Iranian people, it would be 10 times worse here under any other regeime."

Iranian official spokesmen often speak of Iran's "national revival" and its "transformation from a backward, feudal rural society" to a country "about to enter the ranks of the world's most advanced nations." Yet the sheer growth of industrial output, without reference to agricultural production investment attitudes, is an inadequate index to economic development.

Land reform in Iran has been a failure.

"Do you realize that if the country were blockaded, Iran could only feed itself for 34 days?" a goverment official said.

From a position of self-sufficiency in the mid-1960s. Iran now spends $1.4 billion a year on food imports, making it one of the largest food importers in the world. The figure is expected to hit $2 billion in the current year and may well rise to $4 billion by 1985.

Urbanization is hardly widespread. While Tehran grows by leaps and bounds, such provincial cities as Mashed or Bandar Pahlavia have lost population. Even Tehran's boomtown growth is the result of agricultural depression, the mass abandonment of the countryside.

Industrialization has been sudden, drastic and contrary to deeply ingrained modes of thought.

"The shah had only one source of his labor, and that was in the peasantry," a Cabinet minister said. Yet that peasantry believes in a religion that views Western aid as degrading submission and Western science as a new, vicious kind of ignorance.

"Iran is a very, very uneducated society," a Tehran investment banker said. "Fifty years ago" a painter said, "we didn't even have surnames."

Everywhere, I encountered utter disbelief in Iran's ability to handle advanced technology:

Seventeen of 20 nuclear reactors being built in Iran are in an earthquake zone.

The Soviet-built steel mill at Istahan, set up in exchange for piping Iranian natural gas to the Soviet Union, is located where it cannot obtain proper cooking fuel.

The official of a West German-built nuclear reactor spoke of Iranian nuclear technicians "stacking lead bricks" around the entrance to the reactor; of fission rods cracking; of an Iranian reaching to grasp heavily radiated materials with no protective equipment and no gloves saying. "It's hot."

"My God," the official said, "some of these guys don't know what germs are, and they want to learn about radioactivity."

There is nothing in Iran's past to have prepared it for the complexities of industrialization. "You have to remember," said an American who lived in Shiraz, "that all decisions for centuries were made in regard to subsistence - life was fixed, immovable."

Traditional Islamic education, with its parrot-fashion memorization, has been no help.

"They memorize a goddam book once, and it's supposed to be good for ever," said an executive of McDonnell-Douglas. "You try and tell them a technique is changed, been updated, and they say they know - they read the book."

A helicopter pilot for Sikorsky said that Iranians "can't react, can't improvise in response to the spur of the moment." He said Iran had lost five giant model 212 mine-sweeping helicopters "because no one could make up their minds who was flying the ship." The 212s cost $3 million apiece, plus $2 million in spare parts contracts. "They crash a lot of goddamned planes," said a U.S. military man.

Iran is full of foreigners who do the work that Islam has taught Iranians it is humiliating for them to do. Lower caste Pakistanis. Indonesians. Agala sweep the streets pick up refuse, shing shoes, do the scut work of the cites. Koreans and Filipinos do almost all the maintenance for Iran's air force. Drivers from Portugal and the Phillipines keep Iran's transport system moving Americans, West Germans, Japanese almost as house servants, no matter how highly they are paid - keep the industry of Iran running.

"Iran will never industrialize," said a young journalist in Tehran. Deep-rooted attitudes account for the waste and ineffeciency, he said. Many Iranians belive that there is a basic anarchy in the Persian temperament that defies in technology and will not submit to it. "The Iranians are genuine humanists," said a professor of history at the University of Tehran. Accordingly, they believe man is the supreme end, a machine only an interior means.

An American consultant for Emerson Electronics said, "We deal with things in a purely technical way: they see no sense in it."

An Iranian corroborated this: "You think we are careless, ineficient but when we do what is wrong we fail of our own free will, and is that not a kind of freedom."

The speaker was a student pilot.

By their slowness, their ineptness, Iranians are waging a kind of guerrilla war against a modernization they do not want.

But the shah does want it and his is the operative vision. If his nation is to be great, he has said, it must modernize as fast as possible, race to build itself up before the revenues from its diminshing oil run out.

The shah has been compared to Peter the Great, the modernize of 18-century Russia. But, as Rousseau wrote of Peter:

"He saw his people was uncivilized. He tried to turn them into Europeans instead of making them Russians. He urged his subjects to be what they were not, and so prevented them from becoming what they might have been."

What the shah is attempting may lie not beyond the capacity of his vision, but beyond the character of his people.