The shah of Iran was officially described as a protector of Middle East stability, but as early as 1976 top U.S. intelligence officials were beginning to have their doubts.

In a secret CIA review, the leading intelligence experts on Iran questioned whether the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, might have ulterior motives for his extraordinary purchases of U.S. weaponry, including the possibility of taking over other Middle East oil states.

Furthermore, while the Iranian revolution of 1978 caught American leaders by surprise, the secret estimates made by CIA and State Department analysts two years earlier had accurately described the opposition, led by conservative Islamic clergy, and their perception of corrupt values within the shah's regime.

These insights on the troubled past of U.S.-Iranian relations are available in hundreds of captured documents, seized by student militants in their takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and later published in paperback volumes.

Among the documents that have been independently authenticated by The Washington Post was a major intelligence review on Iran, written on Nov. 4, 1976, by David H. Blee, a former deputy director of the CIA's covert operations division and then national intelligence officer for the Middle East. Blee's summary of what the United States needed to know about the shah--and didn't know--raised some of the same troubling implications that congressional critics and press reports had voiced at the time.

"Washington does not have a clear perception of the shah's long-range objectives," Blee's memo said. "For example, why is he acquiring such a vast array of sophisticated military hardware? The shah states that adequate defenses against Communist-equipped Iraq are merely precautionary, yet the placement of new bases suggests other interests.

"In 1985 when oil revenues from Iranian production have peaked and his oil rich neighbors are just across the Gulf, what does the shah intend to do with his accumulated weaponry? Will he still claim and demonstrate concern for the stability of the area? Or will he have destabilizing objectives?"

Blee's memorandum and its unanswered questions summarized the concerns of 40 informed government experts on Iran who had gathered a month before for a three-hour seminar that Blee chaired. They came from the National Security Council, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the State Department, the military services, the Treasury Department, and the Intelligence Community Staff.

The record of that seminar left a long list of questions for intelligence agencies to pursue, ranging from the shah's intentions in Bahrain and Iraq to whether he expected subversion or a coup to topple the neighboring regimes in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Why was the shah pumping Iran's limited oil reserves at a rate that would exhaust them in a decade? What did he intend to do when the oil ran out?

The captured embassy documents, published in 13 volumes in Tehran, were brought back to the United States by freelance journalist William Worthy and two colleagues who made them available to The Washington Post. In addition to the ominous questions about the intentions of the late shah, the documents also describe the intelligence community's reports on the inner political turmoil which eventually engulfed the shah and led to the fall of his monarchy. These accounts, more accurate than their critics have suggested and often prescient, include these points:

* As the result of sophisticated and informed reporting by career diplomats and intelligence agents during the mid-1970s about internal dissent and particularly about the conservative religious hierarchy, Washington was warned repeatedly that "the mullahs and their followers, including wealthy merchants . . . could coalesce around an issue or an incident to offer a real challenge."

* Although U.S. intelligence analysts reported on the most intimate details of the lives of the shah and his family--including their tastes, sexual activities, and financially corrupt practices--the analysts were frustrated by lack of cooperation from the U.S. military in passing along intelligence on the backbone of the shah's regime, the Iranian military.

* What was known about the Iranian army, "potentially the most powerful institution in Iran," indicated that without the shah's leadership, it would lose its cohesion and break down into personal competition, a prediction that proved true in 1979 after the shah's exile.

* U.S. officials were extraordinarily concerned that the Soviet Union was trying to expand its influence with military officers, intellectual dissenters, and religious leaders in order to create a chaotic power vacuum into which the Soviets could move.

* The shah's periodic threats to buy Soviet arms if the United States did not grant his military "wish list" were taken so seriously in Washington that he was allowed to make purchases that were openly conceded to be excessive.

* American hopes for a smooth transfer of power after the shah hinged on his willingness to broaden political participation to include what U.S. analysts felt was an emerging, middle-class elite made up of technicians, businessmen and western-educated professionals who would support the shah in transferring power to a more democratic system and reject "Islam as a guide to life." This estimate proved wrong, for the middle class deserted him.

Despite the heavy arms trade and the close relationship, U.S. intelligence officials still lacked such basic information about the shah and his government as the simple mechanics of decision making. The intelligence experts debated among themselves whether the shah decided everything himself, from oil production to military appointments, or delegated broad authorities to others. A CIA report in early 1976 observed this bizarre thought:

"One nongovernmental Iranian source, speculating on the sources of the shah's policy ideas, finally wondered if the shah did not rely on a secret group of hired foreign advisers. This would enable the shah to make policy without relying on any particular group of Iranians and enhance the shah's image as a talented leader and statesman. The source was not prepared to accept that the shah was a genius in so many unrelated fields; there was no known group to do policy planning and individual advisers did not take credit among their colleagues for having suggested plans to the shah. Foreign input, therefore, was the only explanation the source could think of. This ingenious explanation is interesting primarily as illustrating the difficulty which even a well-educated and presumably knowledgeable Iranian has in explaining rationally the sources of Iranian policy."

Although they were not sure of his overall intentions, the CIA understood that "at age 56 the shah seems very aware that he has a limited time to establish his policies firmly enough to be irreversible." But he was viewed as concerned about the ability of his designated successor--Crown Prince Reza Cyrus, then 15--to govern. "The shah has not lavished great praise on his son's potential; the most he has found to say is that a king of the future could do a great deal if he were willing but on the other hand, 'We are fixing things so he can do no harm.' "

The intelligence officials acknowledged that their reporting on Iranian institutions overall had been "spotty," as critics have often charged. Another CIA memo from the same period said: "Preoccupation with the shah as the main actor on the Iranian scene has led to a neglect of other elements of government and society with which the shah must work or contend."

The Iranian armed forces, "an essential pillar of the shah's position," were receiving vast amounts of American training and equipment, but intelligence analysts acknowledged in one report:

"The paucity of background information on military officers constitutes a serious gap in view of the potential power of the armed forces to affect domestic politics."

Many of the analyses of the shah's stability depended heavily on the notion of an emerging professional elite with middle-class, democratic values. But one 1976 report even saw the middle class as a threat to the shah: "The monarchy as an essential feature of Iranian existence is a concept which is likely to be destroyed eventually by more widespread education and by exposure to other political concepts, systems and customs."

However, it was more likely that this group's more ambitious members would become "part of the traditional elite," said another CIA report. In this way, "the shah has successfully co-opted many who formerly, and perhaps still secretly, would rather see the monarchy reduced to a figurehead."

Although this CIA report says "the clergy would probably not prefer the elimination of the monarchy but would be happy to see the present shah go," it recognized the clerics' suspicion of a secular, western-style bureaucracy which would be "as dangerous as the present shah."

By late 1976, a year before President Carter pronounced Iran an "island of stability," the CIA had certainly identified the intensity of the clerical hatred for the shah: "In the eyes of the religious leaders Mohammad Reza has betrayed an essential element of his role, protection of Islam. The present generation of religious leaders, moreover, seems to be convinced that the shah, as his father before him, is determined to destroy Islam in Iran."

The clerics were unimpressed by the shah's pilgrimages to holy places. "The Moslem clergy in Iran are among some of the shah's fiercest critics," according to a report in early 1976, more than three years before a clerical revolution swept the shah from power. "Deprived of any official forum for their grievances, the clergy attack the shah and his regime through sermons, publications and religious observances. A popular and emotional theme is to compare the shah implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, with the tyrant Yazid who, in the 7th century A.D. was responsible for the murder of the Imam Hossein . . . .The clergy's view is that the state should ultimately be no more than their executive arm . . . .

"Other factors have served to strengthen the clergy's hand. The major Shiah or Shiite sect centers are in Iraq and thus beyond the immediate reach of the government in Tehran . . . . The clergy, itself fiercely xenophobic, has also been prominently identified with popular antiforeign causes. Religious leaders had been held in high regard by most Iranians, if not the most influential, and have developed close ties with the guilds and bazaar merchants, groups that have also felt themselves to be victims of the political elite."

The CIA even estimated that "probably no more than 10 percent of the clergy . . . can be counted as outright supporters of the shah." These "are probably the least influential of the clergy and are considered by many to be no better than government employes."

More important, the report says, "probably 50 percent are in outright opposition to the government and are wholly dependent on their popular following for support; this includes nearly every religious leader of any stature." The rest are "fence-sitters . . . avoiding overt attacks on the government."

In another 1976 CIA report, the violent opposition is dismissed as too small to "threaten the stability of the regime or the shah's programs," although it does note that this group is "embodied in an organization, Mujahadin-e-Kalq, the 'People's Warriors,' composed of the religious community and Marxist/Communists who have submerged their antipathy to each other in the interests of attacking a greater target, the shah and the system he represents."

The report adds: "Ayatollah Khomeini probably should not be considered the leader of the Mujahadin, but his support has encouraged bazaaris merchants to contribute funds, and religious students who follow him are available to swell demonstrations against the regime.

"There seems little possibility of a truce between the regime and the religious community," the report continues. " . . . The secularism of the government and the religious conservatism of the clergy appear irreconcilable and there is no spirit of accommodation on either side."

"From the point of view of U.S. interests the important aspect of the problem is the hostility of a large influential group which has constant access to masses of population. Xenophobia is always just below the surface in Iran. Although masked by the Iranian tradition of hospitality to individuals, it has always been relatively easy to stir up mob feeling against foreigners as an undifferentiated mass, and when this has happened it has almost always had religious overtones.

"For many years the Soviet Embassy in Tehran has been cultivating the religious leaders. The reasons have probably been twofold, first, to win acceptance as friends of Islam and second, to make sure that the religious leaders remain anti-U.S. In both they have been successful. The Soviet Union has emphasized the continued practice of Islam in the U.S.S.R., they have distributed expensive copies of the Koran and of Persian classics printed in the Soviet Union. An additional consideration for the Soviets might be the desire to defuse or anticipate any anti-Soviet reaction which might accompany a generalized xenophobic upsurge."

One CIA report, a typeset publication for intelligence personnel distributed first in 1976 and reproduced in the Iranian paperbacks, describes bluntly the near isolation of the shah and the character of those surrounding him: "The royal court has traditionally been a hotbed of byzantine scheming. In the shah's family are an assortment of licentious and financially corrupt relatives, notably his twin sister Ashraf . . . . The periodic anticorruption campaigns which the shah launches would have greater believability if he saw fit to publicly reproach Ashraf."

The CIA report goes into considerable detail on her influence in obtaining government contracts and in placing "personable young men" in high positions of Iranian government.

The shah's domestic problems did not end there, according to the report. His mother "was frequently reported as plotting . . . to replace him with her other son Ali." A half-brother is quoted as saying of the shah in one of his milder remarks that the royal family was "thoroughly rotten," and that the shah was "driving his country to ruin."

"These assessments," the report says, were not unique to the shah's brother since they "were shared by many Iranians and non-Iranians at the time."

According to the CIA, such activities had become "one of the shah's major problems for most of his reign. The court was at one time a center of licentiousness and depravity, of corruption and influence peddling. The image may have softened somewhat, or is less the subject of common gossip, but the old picture remains in the public mind and some of the derelictions continue but perhaps with more discretion."