A LITTLE CAUTION is needed in weighing the effects of the former shah's latest passage. The United States has tried to smooth things out for him in Panama, hoping at once to avoid the predictable response to his removal to the United States or Egypt. Nervously and rather valiantly, Panama held still for most of this. It seems improbable to us that Panama would never have consented to actual extradition of the man, as distinct from permitting proceedings to go forward. But in the end, he made his own decision. A dying man, he flew to Egypt in search of a more congenial haven, one where he could be treated more royally, control his own medical treatment and incur not even a theoretical risk of being eventually returned to Iran.

The administration, seen once again to have been thwarted, is pained that it could not keep the former shah of a Panamanian track. But it would have come under another sort of fire if it had kept him from picking his own sanctuary. And the Panamanian track had apparently not moved the hostage crisis closer to settlement. Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh now alleges that the move out of Panamanian jurisdiction undercut the planned transfer of the American hostages to the custody of the Iranian government. But that claim has to be measured against his government's unhappy record so far in making good its diplomatic promises. As for the embassy terrorists, they pronounce themselves indifferent to the deposed shah's whereabouts: they hold the United States accountable for returning im and his money, no matter where he is.

The comings and goings in Panama were a hot story over the weekend. But in any cool analysis of the hostage crisis, the matter of where the former shah finds asylum has to be regarded as minor. Whether he takes his illnesses to Panama, Cairo or Timbuktu is essentially a distraction. The crisis began because a gang of Iranians illegally seized an embassy full of Americans protected by diplomatic immunity. The crisis continues because the disposition of the hostages has become a central element in an internal power struggle in Iran. It will end when the government of Iran manages to assert its authority, reclaims the hostages and decides to negotiate a settlement. This last the United States remains ready and eager to help it do.