At a White House background briefing for reporters the other day about the shah of Iran conducted by an anonymous but important "administration official" this exchange took place:

Q: -- Is there any place in the world this man could have gone?

Administration official: I am not sure if I answered that even on background, but I think you probably guessed correctly.

Q: -- What about our western European allies whom we praised for their support and all of whom with first-rate medical facilities?

Administration official: I guess you could ask them about whether they were interested.

Q: -- Did [presidential counselor Lloyd] Cutler see the shah only once [after being dispatched to Panama by the president]? Only on Saturday --

Administration official: -- you mean the ones that get and have gotten the greater portion of their oil from Iran than we ever did?

Q: -- You still say that they have been of great help, right? Isn't that the administration --

Administrationn official: You have been off on the campaign trail for awhile. You might want to go back and read your clip files.

Let it be said immediately that there will be no brief for the shah from this corner. His record shows him to have presided over a ruthless and corrupt regime that deserved to be toppled. But also let it be recorded that seldom in recent history has a shabbier episode unfolded than that of the tortuous wanderings of the ailing, and probably dying, shah.

The life of an exile never makes easy reading, particularly that of an erstwhile powerful monarch, but the story of the shah leaves an especially bitter afterstate. Last week's denouement, with the shah's final flight from Panama back to the Middle East where his story began, reflects credit on hardly anyone involved except Egypt's Anwar Sadat -- who may have had the most to lose.

All the nuances and tangled maneuverings of the deliberations between the shah, the Panamanians and the Americans remain unclear, but these points are not in dispute:

When the shah left Texas for sanctuary in Panama he had a commitment from U.S. officials that he would be able to return here for emergency private medical treatment if he wished. While he apparently never made such a specific request when his major operations became necessary, the public statement of the president's national security affairs adviser, Zbignew Brzezinski, seen over network television, suggesting the United States would have welcomed him back was disingenuous at best.

The last thing the administration wanted, for obvious reasons given the new air of tension surrounding the hostages is Tehran, was to have the shah back in the United States.The Hamilton Jordan-Lloyd Cutler presidential mission to Panama was clearly designed, in part, to try and prevent that. And the hostages' families here had been officially informed -- privately -- that the shah would not be returning.

Jordan, it's said here officially, had resolved the nasty struggle over who would be in charge of the shah's operation in Panama -- his doctors or the Panamanians. He had cleared the way for the operation to take place in Panama. But equally obviously the situation had not been resolved to the shah's satisfaction. His doubts -- or distrust -- or disgust -- prompted him to accept Sadat's long-standing offer to live in Egypt.

As it now becomes evident, Egypt was the last place in the world that would welcome him. For a head of state praised by every president since Franklin Roosevelt as one of America's staunchest allies that final reality had to have been the most difficult of all to accept.

At this point, it probably serves little useful purpose to rake over the embers of the shah's disintegration. Except for this: to see how we contributed to the problem, and what lessons to draw from it.

The critical decisions came early, and remain fateful.

When the shah was deposed, he was invited to come to the United States. He chose to stay closer to Iran, in Morocco, in hopes he would soon be returned to power. That dream swiftly ended. When he then sought U.S. asylum the answer was no: in the violent atmosphere of revolutionary Iran the president was concerned about the vulnerability of Americans there. The United States assisted in finding a home for the shah in Mexico while it also tried to establish close relationships with the new Iranian regime.

There the situation stayed, month after month, until the president was asked again to admit the shah. This time, he was told, the shah was suffereing an illness that might be terminal; it was argued the only place he could get adequate medical treatment was New York's Sloan Kettering Hospital. President Carter reversed himself, the shah was admitted, the hostages were seized, and the rest is history.

No single moral, perhaps, but this sorry story brings a reminder. If the United States stands for anything down through the years it is as a refuge, a haven, an asylum for not just the deserving poor, but the wretched, too. Whatever crimes the shah committed in his land and whatever guilt he bears, we had celebrated him officially and repeatedly for two generations. There never should have been a question, at any point, about admitting him, whether to live or to die here.