THE CRISIS IN IRAN has moved from a stage in which the shah maneuvered to keep a direct grip on power into a stage in which his leading rivals are maneuvering to pick up the power he has let fall. In formal terms, the mararchy still stands; the shah obviously hopes, that by removing himself from the capital and then, soon, from the country, this system will survive. Yet given the broad resistance not only to his rule but to his person and to the monarchy itself, it is hard to see how even a shadow of his former standing could be retained.

Shahpour Bakhtiar, a longtime political foe of the shah, is now trying to put together a government and program that will be supported or at least not violently opposed, by the principal groups contending for power in Iran. The outlook is less than overwhelming. The National Front, grouping important civilian opponents of the shah, is poorly represented in the new cabinet. The religious right is not in it at all, and its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, calls the Bakhtiar effort "illegal." A respected retired general, Fereydoun Jam, is in the cabinet, but whether he can bring along the armed forces, whose attitude is crucial, is uncertain.

The United States aches to have the Bakhtiar government take hold, so that the violence and unrest will recede, the iol will again flow, and the strategic dust raised in the region will begin to settle. Yet there is a real question, and a lively policy debate, over how this can best be achieved. Broadly, the chocies are to intervene politically to steady and strengthen the more conservative and "reliable" components of the new order, or to stand by with an eye to making what adjustments may be necessary and possible down the road.

It is frustrating for a great power to take the more passive approach. The very idea of it offends those who believe that, especially in unsettled global circumstances, American power needs to be used assertively. Particularly in respect to Iran, the tendency to regard the local scene as still being open to profitable American manipulation dies hard.

We think, nonetheless, it would be reckless to indulge excessively the itch to shape the post-shah transition. More is involved here than the conceit that, at this advanced stage of somebody else's turbulent and impenetrable revolution, the United States can fine tune the endgame. There is a failure to accept that, in a nationalistic context where the role of the United States is itself a leading issue, even the most skillful political intervention risks putting a made-in-America burden on elements that Washington might like to see succeed.

In truth, this is not Jimmy Carter's crisis. A halfdozen other presidents cemented the position with whose crumbling he must cope. He has fulfilled one requirement by showing that the United States does not abandon old friends casually. The further test is to accept the limitations on American diplomacy, to avoid egregious errors and to deal as best he can with the new situation as it comes into view.