As the administration wonders where it went wrong in Iran, it repeats the same errors elsewhere in the Middle East. The nature and quantity of Western support -- not a lack of it -- helped bring down the shah. Iran suffered from an overdose of America and Europe. Its society was loaded with imports of sophisticated weaponry and other gadgets that needed the supervision of thousands of foreigners. We have seen the eruption of resentment this causes. Yet the response of the United States government, and the Defense Departement in particular, is to pour more weapons and advisers into other unpopular regimes. There should be no surprise when this policy collapses in chaos.

A specific development demands attention. Defense Secretary Brown, in his recent tour of the Middle East, made arrangements to supply the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) with $300 million worth of tanks, fighter planes and assorted other weapons. Saudi Arabia will finance the deal. The intention is to counter Soviet-influenced Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) should either threaten the Bab Al Mandab Straits or stability in general.

Unforunately, it appears that the Defense Department is as unfamiliar with Yemen as are Americans in general. The proposed transaction is much worse than a mere repetition of past mistakes. The shah was in control of his country for a generation. Other monarchies and dictatorships in the Middle East at least give the appearance of being stable and reliable. Meanwhile Yemen has had two presidents assassinated in the past 18 months. The current one, Ali Abdalla Saleh, has faced two coup attempts. He does not control much of the country or the armed forces.

Yemen is divided by numerous ancient tribal feuds and wars. The army periodically disintegrates along tribal lines and soldiers return to their villages with their rifles. In fact, nearly all Yemeni males above 15 carry arms -- quite a few of which are automatic rifles. A Yemeni who sells carpets door-to-door here in Bahrain explained the weapons traffic in his home town. "Merchants buy guns from soldiers and sell them at people's houses -- just as I do with rugs." Frequent shooting and general lawlessness are the rule. While some tribes are locked in a permanent state of war, others shift alliances regularly. Defections back and forth between North and South Yemen are common.

Supposedly, American-armed Yemenis will help guarantee free passage through the Straits. We would do well to remember that the Ethiopian junta, now in the Soviet camp, uses F5 aircraft to kill Eritreans and make Pentagon officials nervous. They were given to the same regime when it was under United States influence. Weapons always outlast the short-sighted alliances they originally serve. If the Straits are ever blockaded against the West, there is an even chance that it will be done with American equipment sent to Yemen.

The Ottomans and the British were frustrated at trying to control events in Yemen. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been equally unsuccessful. Serious discussion of sending more weapons into the country is baffling. The Defense Department itself should see the effort as ludicrous. There is not a chance of building up a shah or even a Lon Nol. For what it's worth, the Soviets will never succeed with any long-range manipulations they try in Yemen either.

Yemen is the most primitive country in the Middle East, with some of the highest illiteracy, chronic disease, and infant mortality rates in the world. Unsettled conditions hamper development of basic medical care and education. Last year a hospital in Sa'ada, a city in the north, persuaded a foreign eye specialist to spend his vacation with them and treat hundreds of patients with eye troubles. He arrived in Sanaa, the capital, but his visit to the hospital never took place. A rural sheik was having a dispute with the central government. His men closed the single connecting road -- which passed through his territory -- until the quarrel was resolved. By that time the rare doctor had flown out of the country. Similar stories are common.

The last thing Yemen needs is more fighting equipment. Most of it will only end up killing Yemenis in fights unrelated to the superpower rivalry. The proposed action is akin to making a gift of heroin to a child experimenting with marijuana. An administration trying to recover from the shocks of Iran would do well to take second look at its plans for Yemen.