Surely there is more to former ambassador to Iran William Sullivan's attack on Zbigniew Brzezinski than a bid to spoil the national security adviser's chances for power in a second Carter term, or to salve the State Department's wounded pride for having been shut out of so much of the action in Iran and elsewhere, or to salvage his own reputation as the man on the scene of an American Policy disaster.

His is an interesting tale, told in Foreign Policy magazine. But for Brzezinski's personal effort to spur the shah to have the army crush the revolution, Sullivan declares, he, freewheeling in the same policy vacuum, could have made a marriage between the army and the revolution and pulled American chestnuts out of the fire.

Actually, I am no more persuaded that the Brzezinski line, had it been even halfway tried (which it wasn't), would have saved the day than I am that the Sullivan line, had it been worked through (which it wasn't), would have saved the day either. Seemingly divergent, the two policies shared a common premise: that the United States by clever backstage maneuvering could have contrived a compromise that the Iranians were unable to put together themselves.

Perhaps the point is moot, since the shah's loss of grip in Tehran (had the habit of deferring to his patron long ago drained off his capacity for self-starting action?) was fully matched by Jimmy Carter's lack of grip in Washington. Sullivan's evidence that Carter had wandered off the bridge and was permitting second officers to grapple for the helm is depressing indeed.

But to believe that in November and December 1978 -- with power in the streets and the shah preparing to decamp -- the United States could still have controlled events takes a special kind of hubris. The time for effective American intervention, I would gauge, had passed. Risk-wise, Sullivan and Brzezinski were toying with the political equivalent of the hostage rescue mission.

It is a favorite Washington pastime to watch officials carve each other up.

But in weighing where responsibility for our misforune in Iran lies, it makes more sense to focus on the time when we shifted from second to high gear in our commitment to the shah.

This was the Nixon-Kissinger decision of the early 1970s, taken as part of a broader plan to cover the American withdrawl from Vietnam, to make the shah a full-fledged surrogate of American power in the Persian Gulf. The subsequent oil-price increases, giving him the money to finance the fantasies we had encouraged him to indulge, did the rest.

Only a genius-level performance in crisis management could have made a difference by the end of 1978. The earth was moving and the decsions remaining to be made were only tactical: how to limit the damage. Not an ignoble exercise, but certainly not a repreive from a terrible fall.

It comes down, then, to a basic question of perception and analysis that is still unresolved today and, accordingly, to a basic policy question that deserves to be at the center of the presidential campaign, so vexing and central is it bound to be through the 1980s.

Does the world still spin on a more or less conventional axis of power politics, as Nixon and Kissinger figured when they threw in with the shah, and as Brzezinski figured when he strove to prop him up and to lash the United States to him in firm support?

Or is the world irretrievably caught up in the ebb of the old traditional powers and in the flow of the new revolutionary powers? Brzezinski has not been insensitive to this dimension but in the Iranian context, he was not nearly so committed to going with the new flow as was Sullivan. Sullivan, I hasten to add, is no New Lefty rocking to the beat of the revolution; he was still thinking in U.S. national-interest terms.

It is possible to position the major presidential candidates along the spectrum on the issue. Jimmy Carter has been on the left moving right. Ronald Reagan is on the right, period. John Anderson -- as one can see from the skimpy testimony of his platform -- is somewhere in the middle, which is not a bad place to be.

But I would not want any of our candidates to be too doctrinaire about it. You can write one scenario in which firmness pays off and another scenario rewarding flexibility. It is good to be aware of both of them but intimidated by neither of them. A respect for history, or the intuitive equivalent, is essential but so is a feel for dealing with a moving situation and an understanding of the limitations of men.