The room had the usual signs of Persian hospitality.

At its end, in front of the glass-windowed bookshelves, a low wooden table stood dressed by a colorful cloth. A stack of plates and peeling forks stood between two neat pyramids of oranges, piled like little cannonballs.

The door opened. An imprisoned couple entered. The woman was short and dark, her head covered with a tightly under her chin. She nodded deferentially, "Salaam." Her husband, a short man with swarthy, sallow skin, also gave a greeting.

They sat down on one side of the long central table, facing the single, close-barred windown eight feet from the floor. A Mr. Vadei, the interpreter, went and sat down on the other side, facing them.

They both wore those crumpled deliberately mis-sized blue prison denims. The interpreter wore a tailored brown tweed suit with a large flowery tie that flowed down below his belt buckle.

Vadei had elegant manners, a friendly, hearty smile that rarely disappeared from beneath his bushy mustache.

"Go ahead," he said to me, "you may ask them anything you wish."

Prisons, the Iranians say, are located in every major city. In Teheran, the most important is considered to be Evin. It is said to include the chief torture facility of SAVAK, the Iranian secret service. Very few prisoners, it seems, are allowed to see close relatives, and no visitors at all are permitted.

Although it stands within two miles of the Royal Tehran Hilton, if one did not know where the prison were one would not find it.

After a right turn off the Shahanshah (King of Kings) Expressway, the village of Evin stands on both sides of a crooked road that runs downhill. At the bottom, there it is: a pink, brick-walled compound built so clse to the foot of a mountain that it is hard to see.

The military control it. Soldiers checked the car at the front gate. At the sight of Vadei, troops with M-16s, clad in khakis stuffed into paratroop boots and wearing red-banded caps, stiffened and stood at attention.

Vadei was once a general in the army, and SAVAK, like the national police, is in the hands of the army. The task of the police is to control the enemies of the state.

The shah constantly claims that his main opposition comes from the left, the "Red Threat" - guerrillas who get their guidance from Moscow. Yet some of his most persistent, virulent opposition continues to come from the right, from the "Black Threat" of the ordinary populace and their leaders - the Moslem clergy who claim to represent the voice of the masses.

Warfare with this Black Threat has been going on for some time.

Islam is not just a religion, it is a social order, so when the shah had his premier announce in 1962 that the religion was simply another institution, he was regarded by the mullahs as a blasphemer.

Islam was the largest landowner in the country after the shah himself. The real outrage came when the shah went to the most sacred city in Iran, Qum, and with his own hands gave private persons deeds to the mosques and land.

The bloody and widespread religious-led riots of June 1963 were the result.

"I abhor the Black reaction even more than the Red destruction," the shah said afterward. The struggle continues.

Parviz Sabeti, deputy director of SAVAK, engaged in the following exchange in an interview with me:

Sabeti: That is right.

Question: I was told that they were religious protesters: religious leaders - mullahs.

Sabeti: True. You know that since the White Revolution, the mullahs have been against universal suffrage, the freedom of women, the distribution of the land. We have had to treat them very badly, very harshly.

The White Revolution is the label given to 12 edicts the shah promulgated providing for the nationalization of forests, land reform, suffrage for women, and other public health and literacy problems.

The two prisoners I met at Evin were what the shah calls "Islamic Marxists." He claims all his enemies are "Marxists or people who call themselves 'Islamic Marxists.'"

I asked the couple how long they had been there. A year and ten days exactly, they replied.

Did their families know where they were? Vadei said the families had been notified of their arrest but had had no word since then. No date had been set for their trial.

Was there an attorney present at their interrogation? The eyes of both grew evasive. "They say yes," Vadei replied for them.

Why were they against the shah? It was she wo spoke, passionately, earnestly.

"The shah is not for the benefit of the people," she said.

Vadei said listening, keeping a slight smile, amused in back of his keen eyes.

"In the old days, there was unity between the leaders and the people," she said.

Not any more? No, she answered.

Was there also unfairness in the distribution of wealth? She hesitated.

"She asks you to repeat," said Vadei.

But there was no need. After a pause, she replied that the economic teachings of the Koran are based on respect for the sacred nature of private property. The Koran expresses definite opposition to the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a single person or group, she said.

Vadei broke in, smiling widely, "We see here that those who oppose use religion as a cover. They have been duped by the Marxists."

Her husband sat there. He had averted his eyes during the entire exchange.

I took their phone number and promised to call their parents to say I had seen them and they were well.

Vadei and I then took a tour through the cells of Evin. The prison has a capacity of 400. Vadei said it contained only 90 inmates at that time.

We walked down bright, empty yellow corridors with many locked, solid beike doors. High on each door was a severe stell flap with a level silver handle. Vandei occasionally yanked one open. Inside, a startled figure in blue would quickly rise to its feet. Suddenly, Vadei pulled open a flap. There was the couple we had interview earlier.

CIVIL RIGHTS have never played much of a part in the political tradition of Islamic nations such as Iran, where the responsibility is not of the state toward the individual, but the individual toward the state.

As a prominent government supporter, Sen. Taher Ziai put it, "First of all, freedom of the individual cannot be an absolute right, but must be consistent with the public interest."

It is the shah and the chief security agencies under his personal direction that determine exactly what the public interest is. SAVAK is only one of those agencies. Others include the Special Intelligence Bureau or the J-2 branch of the Imperial Iranian Armed forces. SAVAK is the best known, but its own view of its role has been hardest to get on record.

Its official title is State Security and Intelligence Organization, founded in 1957 with U.S. financial aid and technical assistance.

It is also alleged to cooperate closely with the Israelis. Innumerable Iranians, including many in a position to know, told me that the Israelis oversee SAVAK's techniques.

Officials of the Washington-based Center for National Security Studies say they suspect that the CIA still makes an annual payment to SAVAK.

SAVAK has also been called the shah's "personal bodyguard" by the Iranian opposition. The government says this is nonsense but still admits that the shah is the chief political institution of the state.

SAVAK headquarters is in the east of the city of Tehran.To enter, one must pass through a very severe-looking low concrete gate. One then passes a glass booth and enters a brickwalled compound of about 25 acres housing 1,500 men. Two green army trucks with heavy machine guns mounted behind their cabs were parked inside the day I visited.

There has been a running battle between the shah and the foreign press over the number of SAVAK agents. Deputy Sabeti ridiculed the popular estimates: "Can you imagine 300,000 Savaks in a nation of 34 million?"

The best estimate I had heard was 20,000.

"There are 3,500 to 4,000," said Sabeti. "And that includes drivers, servants, the man who brings you tea."

The best the shah had admitted to was 1,500. Premier Amir Hoveyda had admitted only to 2,500.

The real question is, where does SAVAK end and the rest of the Iranian military establishment begin?

There is the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie, an 85,000-man force responsible for security in all cities of fewer than 5,000. The gendarmerie has U.S. advisers. There is the national police, which numbers about 70,000. Then there are counter-insurgency forces.

Asked if SAVAK did not have total access to their resources and manpower, and if SAVAK's orders did not take precedence, Sabeti answered: "It is true thay cooperate very closely with us."

SAVAK's greatest triumph has perhaps been psychological. The SAVAK are spoken of as people who know everything, hold everything in their hands and have friends and helpers everywhere.

In Teheran, I was told that close members of my wife's family were SAVAK. (My wife is Iranian and her father is the deputy information minister.)

Back in Washington I asked two apparently inseparable Iranians whom I had known for years if the other was SAVAK. Neither was sure.

The White Revolution is the label given to 12 edicts the shah promulgated providing for the nationalisation of forests, land reform, suffrage for women, and other public health and literacy problems.

SAVAK has also been called the shah's "personal bodyguard" by the Iranian opposition. The government says this is nonsense but still admits that the shah is the chief political institution of the state.

"THEY HANDCUFFED him to a radiator and left him. The radiator grew hot, the heat spread through the steel cuffs. He began to scream. They let him scream for six hours."

The speaker was not Iranian, but a New York taxi driver, telling of an incident he had witnessed at a local precinct. I drew the conclusion that there is police torture everywhere.

In Iran, as elsewhere, it is against the law.

Said Deputy Director Sabeti, "In the first place, under Article 131, torturing is forbidden. The penalty is six years.If the tortured prisoner dies, then his torturer is immediately executed.

"On the spot?" I asked.

"On the spot," he replied.

Asked if anyone had ever been prosecuted and found guilty under Article 13. Sabeti replied, "not yet," leaving open whether anyone had been executed for the offense.

Vadei, the ex-general and interpreter - although the U.S.-educated Sabeti spoke perfect English - interjected. "They are too afraid of us to torture."

It takes very little to become a plotical suspect in Iran, for every action may have political significance.

All crime is, in a sense, political: Profiteering is putting personal interests before those of the state. Criticizing the shah belittles his authority and weakens the state's prestige, hence its authority.

The Communist threat is the most frequent reason given for police repression in Iran. "Here dissenters are different," insisted Sabeti. "We know for a fact that almost all of those who give us trouble get their orders directly from the Soviet Union embassy here in Tehran."

Sabeti said that a dossier is started on a person "only if he is involved in anti-government activities." He amended that to say, "Or if we have the slightest indiication he may become involved: then files and surveillance begin immediately."

At another point, he said, "If the opinion of dissenter were regarded as being helpful to the enemy, then any activity, direct or indirect, would be treason."

He attributed Iranians' fear of SAVAK to their "being influenced by foreign journalists' accounts. Some of the foreign journalists come here . . . They see SAVAK behind every tree." When I described seeing people afraid to speak of them except in a whisper, Sabeti said calmly, "There is no fear of SAVAK among the people."

Measures to suppress real or imagined Communists and terrorists also succeed in intimidating the populace at large.

Sabeti said that in the last seven years, terrorists of all kinds in Iran had killed 33 persons "from VIPs to innocent victims." He also said that 200 terrorists have been killed.

There is no doubt that political order in Iran seems somewhat insecure. There are frequent police sweeps of city sections to search out terrorists. The Tehran papers carry headlines like "Woman Terrorist Executed Before Firing Squad" or "Eight Terrorists Killed, 11 Captured." Since no one trusts the media, rumors circulate cosntantly of a theater having been bombed or some installation destroyed.

THE SHAH has said that there is no need to torture. The state can control men's right to work.

Agreeing that, like any other agency, SAVAK is susceptible to political influence, Sabeti denied that there is any such thing as a blacklist.

I was told of a man who had quarreled with his business partner. The case was still before the courts, but, because the partner had influence with SAVAK, the business was closed.

I told him of another case, that of an Iranian marked "political" who had returned from his jobs after kept getting fired from his jobs after only two or three days without explanation. This went on for eight months until he was recruited by mansour Rafizadgh, alleged to be the chief SAVAK officer in the United States. He reportedly said the man would be allowed to leave Iran and return to the United States on condition tha the infiltrate student organizations there fan report on them to SAVAK.

Sabeti still insisted, "There is not this kind of economic reprisal," and "There is no blacklist."

When Gen. Hassan Toufanian, the shah's Vice Minister of war, discovered that an agent for Rockwell had helped to obtain a contract between that company and Iran, he wrote angrily: "I am authorized to state that due to the interference of Mr. Abolfath Mahvi . . . his name should be put on the backlist.

LATER, I tried to reach the couple I had interviewed at Evin, using the number SAVAK had given me. I tired it 30 times. Four days later, Iranian friends in Tehran were still trying for me. It never answered.

NEXT: SAVAK in the U.S.