Whatever the shortcomings of the shah of Iran, he, unlike so many of our other dictator proteges, has so far not sought U.S. intervention to save his regime, although his back is to the wall. In fact, he says he will accept such outside help.

That is a welcome and refreshing contrast with the general run of America's authoritarian clients who, when threatened with revolt, almost invariably conjur up a Maxist conspiracy and call on Washington to step in and stop the "commies."

It's hard to remember when any other absolute monarch has blamed his troubles on himself, and publicly apologized for "past mistakes of unlawfulness, cruelty and corruption." The shah "guarantees a future government based on the constitution, social justice, national interests, and free from corruption and oppression."

It may be that these concessions come belatedly and out of desperations, but better late than never, for they will strengthen the hand of the Carter administration against the hardliners who always, in such circumstances, want the United States to intervene. Their standard message to the president - any president - is: "Don't stand there - do something!"

Actually there is not much more than Carter can do, or that Congress, mindful of the lessons of Vietnam, would let him do. The case for doing "something" is based as usual on the familiar argument that, bad as the shah may be, any alternative would be worse, at least for U.S. interests.

That, of course, is at best a guess, for at this point no one can foresee what's ahead for Iran. A former top CIA official is quoted as saying, "There has been a massive intelligence failure in Iran." And an Iran scholar adds, "It seems absolutely stupefying, but after all the money, people and effort we've put into that country, we don't know what's going on."

It is questionable whether the United States has ever understood its best interests in Iran. After all, the CIA overthrew the shah's predecessor, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, 25 years ago when he set out to nationalize Iran's oil and sell it for what, in retrospect, seems a small increase in price. After we put the shah back on the throne, he not only nationalized the oil, but joined in forcing a 400 percent price gouge on the United States and the Western World as well.

Washington has not been notably prescient elsewhere either. Back in the 1960s, when Guyana was about to become independent, we helped install Prime Minister Forbes Burnham to prevent left-wing forces from taking power, but Burnham ended up introducing the only socialist government on the South American continent.

In Chile and Guatamala, the United States did its bit for democracy by helping supplant elected governments with military regimes that still keep Amnesty International busy checking up on repression and torture of political prisoners. In Nicaragua, dictator Anastasio Somoza has, until recently, kept himself in power for years with U.S. weapons and patronage.

In the light of this and even bigger and more disastrous interventions in other parts of the world, it is not surprising that Moscow is uneasy over the U.S. reaction to the turmoil in Iran. President Leonid Brezhnev says, "it must be clear that any interference in the affairs of Iran - a state which directly borders on the Soviet Union - would be regarded by the U.S.S.R. as a matter affecting its security interests."

That statement may be premature, as well as gratuitous, but perhaps it is just as well for both Washington and Moscow to speak plainly about such a potentially dangerous development. The is no time for a misunderstanding.

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's response was categorical. "The United States," he says, "does not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of any country, and reports to the contrary are totally without foundation." There seems little reason to doubt this or Brezhnev's equally strong pledge against interference in Iran.

While it is true that the United States and other Western nations get most of Iran's oil, it is also a fact that Russia gets most of Iran's huge gas production, and Moscow appears to be content with that arrangement.

Russia's ambassador to the United States is said to have told Vance that Moscow have no interest in replacing the shah with an unpredictable vacuum. Another U.S. official is quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying the Russians have privately "told a number of governments, including ours, that anarchy in Iran would be damaging to their interests."

Nevertheless, when and if the shah falls, there doubtless will be charges that we "lost" Iran, just as we allegedly "lost" China and Vietnam. Let the alarmists remember, however, that not long ago they were predicting that the fall of dictators in Spain and Portugal would lead to communist control of those countries.