"My name is Ozymandias, king of Kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!"

-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Contemporary history contains few Third World morality tales as illustrative as the slow agonizing disgrace of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, self-styled king of kings, light of the Aryans and dispenser of lessons to the decadent West.

Whether he remains a depressed and lonely man in one of his wellguarded palaces or flies into exile in no way changes the fact that this oriental autocrat cum modernizing visionary is finished as a meaningful force in Iran.

So, too, is his dream of single-handedly dragging an oil-rich, but otherwise backward country into the very forefront of the world and turning it into the fifth industrial power by the year 2000.

With Iran's economy shut down, the country in the throes of anarchy, the shah's prized army battling mobs and, on the verge of mutiny, perhaps only one trace remains of the shah's once unquestioned authority.

That is the fear and suspicion the shah personally still summons forth among those Iranians whose rejection is so complete they cannot bring themselves to believe the shah is capable of repenting past excesses and accepting a diminishing role as a figurehead monarch.

A year ago, Iran scarcely appeared to be a likely candidate for a slow-motion revolution. As the world's number two oil exporter, revenues were in the $20- $22 billion a year range. Its average per capita income, although badly distributed, topped $2,200.

The shah was sure enough in his grip to allow him to liberalize ever so little, thus staying on the good side of his superpower ally, the United States, and its president, Jimmy Carter. In fact, Carter had just spent New Year's Eve at the palace despite possible doubts about the monarch's human rights record.

A week later troops opened fire on religious demonstrators in the holy Shiite city of Qom. They killed the first of more than a thousand Iranians who have died violently since.

The once unthinkable process of discernible disintegration had begun its since uninterrupted way.

The seeds of the shah's undoing had been sown long before. The popular tendency to blame it all on Carter's civil rights policies is at best an oversimplification. In hindsight, it was only a question of time before the system the shah had built collapsed.

At the center lies rushed economic growth, wasted investments, mammoth corruption, overcentralization of power in the shah's hands, often brutal political repression and the character of the man himself.

As his 37-year reign progressed, the shah increasingly came to prize loyalty over competence and control over efficency with overlapping authorities all reporting directly to him.

As his success in modernizing Iran grew, he failed to see that these options wouldi nevitably choke off growth, discourage the ambitious and talented Iranians and leave him with the corrupt and fickle sycophants. Ultimately he sacrificed those corrupt officials but he still could not bring himself to punish them.

The seeds of these contradictions were apparent long ago, perhaps as far back as the 1930s when the shah was sent to the exclusive Le Rosey school in Switzerland. It was here he came to both love and hate the Western cultural, social and political valuses he found.

In many ways he remained very much an Oriental despot, rather than a modern political leader. He was more than slightly xenophobic in his outspoken criticism of European decadence and what he saw as irresolute leadership in post-Vietnam America.

Son of Reza shah, a former army, officer much inspired by the reforming zeal of his Turkish contemporary, Ataturk, the present monarch in many ways is not a politician at all.

Rather he is a visionary who sees himself as a savior, a revolutionary and patriotic mentor of his people, roles that brook little opposition.

He has no common touch. He is a dull public speaker. Rightly or wrongly, he often comes across as an arrogant man with little time for everyday Iranians. He is cold and distant in public appearances, although he warms up in private talks and press interviews.

To his people he remains somewhat of a stranger -- in the best of times loved by few, feared by many and revered by some for his efforts to modernize the country.

In the process, the shah has lost touch with everyday Iranians. Much of that loss seems to have been intentional because basically the shah thinks their feelings are something to be changed and reformed. In his view they are at best extraneous, and at worst, obscurantist, as in the case of his religious opponents.

Despite the shortcomings of many of his programs, the shah made considerable progress in several areas. In an effort to educate the rural population and introduce modern hygiene into remote areas, he established the Literacy and Health Corps.

Enrollment of students in high schools and universities and the number of women admitted for higher education and employed in both the public and the private sectors increased dramatically.

In his land reform and worker share participation decrees, the shah tried to involve peasants and workers in the means of agricultural and industrial production, although these programs scored only limited successes.

Like his father, the monarch differed from the rulers of many previous Persian dynasties in his devotion to hard work and a measure of self-sacrifice in efforts to make Iran a world power.

He was determined to use Iran's oil bonanza to recast Iran as a modern industrial state. But at the same time he neglected the desires of the people for a more democratic society.

The shah has never shown much patience for achieving his ends politically -- the imperial firman, or decree, has always been his favorite instrument.

Rarely has there been a monarch so deeply upset with security or so willing to squander billions of dollars on buying the most sophisticated arms to make himself and his country feel stronger and safer.

He ceaselessly justified the expenditures by invoking the traumatic foreign intervention of this century. They range from a virtual carve-up of Iran by Britain and Russia in the first decade to occupation during World War II by their troops who forced his father to abdicate because of alleged pro-Nazi sentiment.

Adding to the present shah's suspicions was the 1951-53 period when the late prime minister Mohamed Mossadegh chipped away at his powers, nationalized the British-owned oil fields and forced him into a brief Roman exile before a CIA-financed coup put him back on the Peacock Throne.

From those humilations came the monarch's ruthless elimination of all meaningful opposition by authoritarian methods which have included systematic use of torture, according to Western human rights organizations.

Gradually over the years, the shah violated the liberal parliamentary government constitution of 1906 and concentrated more and more power in his own hands.

Except for a brief respite between 1960 and 1963 -- corresponding to the liberal-minded Kennedy administration's influence -- the shah had SAVAK, his dreaded CIA- and Israelitrained secret police, help intimidate, drive into exile or otherwise silence both the political and religious opposition.

By the early 1970s, only small, determined but basically isolated bands of urban guerrillas challenged his authority. His rule appeared to the outside world to have reached its zenith.

In 1971 the shah staged a lavish, if much criticized extravaganza in the ruins of Persepolis, capital of Cyrus the Great, to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy in general and the Pahlavi rule in particular.

Major United States interests added to the shah's growing self-assurance.

President Nixon, intent on finding reliable allies to shore up contracting American power overseas, eagerly enlisted the shah as a kind of gendarme to police the strategic Persian Gulf.

Iranian-American relations reached a high point during Nixon's 1972 visit and provided yet another reason for the shah to bask in the reflected glory of his unofficial alliance with the United States.

For the United States the advantages seemed enormous. The shah was willing to help contain Soviet influence in the region thanks to mammoth purchases of American arms. The sales helped pay for America's mounting oil import bill and stretched production lines suffering from the end of the Indochina war.

Politically overlooked under Nixon's policy, once called "giving the shah everything he wants," was the prophetically accurate dissent of James Schlesinger, the secretary of defense.

He warned of the dangers of selling Iran sophisticated equipment that would require the presence of tens of thousands of Americans for training and maintenance in a notoriously xenophobic country.

But at long last the shah must have thought he really was farmandeh or commander of his people, a cherished goal of all Persian monarchs through the ages. Thanks to his leading role in quadrupling oil prices in the wake of the Arab oil embargo in 1973, he appeared to have the means of accomplishing his dream and leaving a modernized, stable and self-perpetuating Iran to his seven heirs.

In retrospect, the sudden influx of windfall cash to an already badly stretched economy was a mortal, and self-inflicted, wound. For it was the shah who insisted on doubling the five-year investment plan to $69 billion.

Much of the funds were wasted as the shah tried to impose his industrialization from the top down, rather than steadily building the infrastructure to support it from the bottom.

The results have become so commonplace in oil-producing countries that they are called "the OPEC disease": imported inflation, major corruption, port delays, demurrage charges, low productivity, sky-high wages, accelerated rural exodus, uneven income distribution and neglected agriculture.

In Iran's case, the consequences were compounded, for unlike many underpopulated sheikdoms, the shah had to satisfy 35 million Iranians, who, mindful of his role in jacking up oil prices, expected him to deliver El Dorado overnight.

The shah gambled that he could simply solve problems by throwing money at them. But Iran lacked the trained manpower and the ports, roads, power lines, factories and industrial conditions to reverse the trend and make the economy less dependent on the country's oil assets.

The boom was short-lived. By trying to do too much too fast, he jeopardized the very economic growth he had sought to promote.

The day of reckoning approached, as the shah realized that the economy could not appease all sections of the populations with financial rewards that had now come to be taken for granted.

By 1976, the shah had unleashed an Iranian form of Red Guards to enforce draconian price controls. Overnight the private sector, which had ben praised as the cutting edge of the shah's vision for modern Iran, was singled out as profiteers, price gougers and scoundrels.

Investments, both foreign and domestic, dropped off as a consequence, helped along by the shah's insistence on limiting foreign investment shares on companies and on instituting worker share participation in major industries. This scheme, in fact, was a way of currying badly needed political support.

It was the shah's way of dealing with the inevitable inflationary consequences of the oil bonanza and overspending. It did not succeed in its long-term goal of stemming the rising tide of public discontent.

The economic mess provided a perfect launching pad for the lay and religious opposition that had been all but forgotten in the bonanza years.

Now came the testing time for a supposed strongman regime, riding out the trauma of transition between the ways of the past and the dislocations that overrapid growth had visited upon Iran.

Iranians, who had felt the repression, those who had not participated in the fat years, and middle-class citizens resentful of being treated like children, finally found common cause under the steamroller strength of a grass roots religious movement.

On paper, the shah probably judged he could well afford to flatter Carter's human rights instinets by allowing the old National Front party to publish -- abroad, if not at home -- criticism of his authoritarian rule. The National Front, once led by Mossadegh, was now directed by old men, mostly Western educated with little or no discernible following in the country.

Not even the most astute Iranian or foreign observers, however, expected the Shiite Moslem leadership to provide the shock troops that invigorated the protest from top to bottom of Iranian society.

Since the shah and SAVAK had been so successful in shutting off meaningful debate, the only safe place to discuss grievances became the mosque.

No longer was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seen as an eccentric seething with bile and hatred for the shah from his exile in the holy city of Najjax in neighboring Iraq.

An ill-considered, officially-inspired anti-Khomeini article published at government insistence in early January touched off the first killings at Qom.

Then for months, in regular 40-day cycles, the country was convulsed with the mourning ceremonies of Shiite Moslems that regularly produced yet further deaths to be mourned.

By mid-February in Tabriz, the pattern of violence and anarchy had been established. Frightened policemen deserted the streets, and demonstrators roamed at will, attacking banks, movie houses and liquor stores until the army arrived and shot and killed some 60 of them.

A brief lull in June apparently resulted from a secret deal between the shah and religious leaders in Qom, worried about the risk of anarchy and violence.

The violence broke out again in late July. By August prime minister Jamshid Amouzegar resigned following a controversial movie house fire in Abadan that killed 400 people.

Disturbances in Isfahan, Iran's second largest city, were serious enough to warrant application of martial law. Demonstrations in Tehran ended in the slaughter of hundreds of demonstrators by jittery troops in early September and soon the new prime minister, Jafar Sharif-Emami, was compelled to put 12 cities under martial law.

In retrospect that period spelled the end of the shah as absolute ruler, especially since for the first time in a generation Iranians from all walks of life suddenly found courage to speak out and criticize the monarch without fear of SAVAK repression.

Frightened by Sharif-Emami's liberalization -- from a free-swinging press to investigations of corruption in high place -- the military forced the shah's hand in early November. By pulling troops off Tehran's streets, they appeared to deliberately encourage rioters to indulge in an orgy of looting and destruction to justify imposition of a military government.

And then a repentant shah made a rare appearance on television to apologize to the nation for past misdeeds and to promise genuine transition to democracy.

It was an uncharacteristic performance, but it was to no avail. The shah basically had become irrelevant to all Iranians except the armed forces and those compromised by the regime.

His biggest disappointment was the refusal of the middle class he had helped to rally to his defense -- or even to that of their own natural interests.

Just as the shah had given in to workers' pay demands without resistance throughout a rash of autumn strikes, now the opposition became convinced he was on the run and would eventually cave in.

By the time in early January the shah dismissed the military government -- manifestly incapable of restoring law and order and getting the country back to work -- his hopes of installing a meaningful civilian government had faded as he bickered to remain inside Iran -- even in a figurehead capacity.

With the opposition preparing to oppose prime minister-designate Shahpour Bakhtiar's last chance government, once again the situation seems to be a case of too little too late.

In 1961 the shah told an interviewer "I will behave like the King of Sweden when the Iranians behave like Swedes." At least in part, his undoing resulted from failing to realize that thanks to his very success in modernizing Iran his fellow citizens were closer to that invoked ideal than he fathomed.