Shahpour Bakhtiar, 63, the man the shah of Iran has asked to lead a new civilian government, described himself not too long ago as "an unemployed intellectual."

Largely unknown to most Iranians until he was propelled into the lime-light last week, Bakhtiar is in fact, a lawyer by training and a long-time opponent of the shah. Like other leaders of Iran's secular political opposiktion, he belongs to the wealthy upper tier of Tehran society and lives comfor tably despite political repression under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Until recently, Bakhtiar was the number two mann in the opposition National Front, which expelled him after he accepted the shah's mandate to form a government that would end the country's year-long crisis while, apparently, preserving the monarchy. He was one of the young-est high officials of the National Front government under the late Mohammed Mossadegh, who forced the shah into exile in 1953 before a CIA-backed coup brought him back a few days later.

Bakhtiar studied at a French School in Beirut and later at the University of Paris where he received a doctorate in international law in 1940. Later he earned another doctorate in law and political science at another Paris' prestigious schools. The prolonged French education left him weak in his native Persian for a time after his return home.

During World War II, he was drafted by the French Army for 18 months. The fight against the Nazi invasion has been a major influence in Bakhtiar's life. In the past year, since the National Front reemerged after 15 years of suppression, Bakhtiar often has compared the shah's government to Hitler's Zazis and the Iranian secret police, SAVAK, to the Gestapo.

After his return to Iran in 1946, Bakhtiar spent two years in the provinces. In 1948 he joined the Iran Party, a group of largely French-speaking social democrats like himself that joined the National Front. Bakhtiar rose to become a deputy minister of labor under Mossadegh, but was forced out of government service by the 1953 coup.

He later began working in a law office and, because of his continued political activities, claims to have been jailed six times by the shah's police.

He says the shah has on several occasions had him dismissed from jobs because of his political record.

Bakhtiar is related to Gen. Teymour Bakhtiar, the first chief of SAVAK, and more distantly to the shah's SECOND WIFE, Soraya Esfandiary, whom the monarch divorced in 1958.

Gen. Bakhtiar is widely held responsible for institutionalizing torture in SAVAK after the intelligence and security organization was created in 1956. Though he rallied his troops to the shah in 1953, Gen. Bakhtiar gradually developed designs on taking power himself and the shah exiled him in 1961 for plotting a takeover. He was assassinated in Iraq in 1970 by SAVAK agents -- an action the shah later acknowledged -- after having masterminded several unsuccessful coup attempts against the shah from abroad.

Despite having been a political outcast in the past, Shahpour Bakhtiar seems to have done well financially under the shah's rule. Like many well to do dissidents, including National Front leader and former ally Karim Sanjabi, he lives in a spacious walled villa in north Tehran with a garden and a swimming pool.

On a recent visit, guests were received and served tea by servants dressed in white, and four cars were parked outside on the lawn.

Some of those wh oknow him view Bakhtiar, a natty dresser, who still speaks fluent French, as a courageous man taking on a difficult task in a desperate bid to save his country from further chaos and violence. Others see him as a political opportunist with illusions of becoming man of the hour.

In any case, one factor that may militate against his efforts to end Iran's crisis is his reputed distaste for the powerful Shiite Moslem clergy, which has been in the forefront of opposition to the shah. A secular man and a politicall liberal, Bakhtiar reportedly had been in the forefront of opposiktion to the shah. A secular man and a political liberak, Bakhtiar reportedly had been growing uncomfortable with the tactical alliance between the National Front and the religious opposition led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini..