Former President Nixon tonight backed President Carter's handling of the Iranian situation and predicted that Americans held hostage in Tehran would be released unharmed "provided we stand absolutely firm."

In his first live television interview since he resigned from the presidency in 1974. Nixon said he shared the "gut feeling" of many Americans that military force should be used to free the hostages held in the U.S. Embassy. However, he said, such action would endanger their lives.

"If we were to move, the lives of the hostages probably would be in danger," Nixon said. "The risk -- I'm sure President Carter has made this determination -- is too great to use the military option."

While Nixon was careful to make no direct criticism of Carter on Iran or any other issue during a program that was scheduled for 90 minutes and ran nearly two hours, he did issue a strong defense of the deposed shah of Iran.

Under the shah, Nixon said, Iranians were better off than they are under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whom Nixon said needs a "foreign devil" to divert attention from rising unemployment and other problems.

"On balance, the shah is infinetly better -- better for Iran -- than is Khomeini," Nixon said.

In a broadcast over KABC-TV here that was devoted exclusively to foreign policy issues, Nixon made these other points:

The strategic arms limitation treaty should not be signed in its present form. Without elaboration, Nixon said he would want to look at any amendments that were adopted before he issues any final position on its ratification.

Whatever the outcome of SALT II, the United States should increase its defense spending by a least $20 billion annually in an effort to forestall Soviet strategic superiority, which Nixon predicted would occur in the mid-1980s. He said it is particularly important for the United States to beef up its naval forces.

The greatest danger to western Europe is posed not by Soviet nuclear superiority but by conventional forces. Nixon said the Soviet aim is to "Finlandize Europe" without direct resort to military forces. "They don't want war, but they want the world." Nixon said of the Soviets.

In the interview with Jerry Dunphy, of KABC. Nixon appeared relaxed but somewhat gaunt. On several occasions, he stumbled over words and at one pont referred to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as "President Kennedy." He quickly corrected that with a smile and an observation dent Carter wouldn't like."

Nixon praised Carter for his efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East, saying that the accord between Egypt and Isreal is of special importance. In an apparent attempt to steer a middle ground between critics and defenders of Israel. Nixon urged Israel "go the extra mile" and convince the world that it really wants peace with its Arab neighbors.

While Nixon was sharply critical of the Israeli government for permitting additional settlements on the West Bank, he said the United States should never negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization until the PLO accepts the existence of Israel and renounces the use of terrorism against the Israeli people.

Turning to Africa. Nixon opposed a boycott of South Africa, which he said was making progress in race relatons. He said the United States should try to "work from within" in turning South Africa from the segregationist policy of apartheid.

On relations with China, which Nicon pioneered with his historic 1972 visit there the former president said he had some reservations about President Carter's decision to sever relations with Taiwan in favor of complete diplomatic recognition of the mainland government.

However, Nixon said Carter was well within his constitutional rights to make the decision and predicted that the Supreme Court would overturn a lower-court decision that said Carter should have consulted with the Senate in advance.

Nixon said he is confident that Taiwan will not be taken over by force by the People's Republic of China.