If the United Nations is going to stand tall as our moral leader in the gulf, it had better clean up its act on human rights. If we are to go to war, we need to know what we are fighting for -- and against.

Last year, the General Assembly gave Iran a pass on human rights. The mild report submitted after a week-long visit to Iran -- the first outside mission authorized since the revolution -- by a human rights inquiry panel led by Reynaldo Galindo Pohl of Salvador seemed to some an expression of gratitude to President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Ronald Reagan's "moderates." To others, it was an outright deal: a whitewash for a hostage release that never occurred.

Whatever the cause, the result was that for the first time in nine years Iran evaded condemnation for the continuation of policies of torture and imprisonment without trial, not to mention wholesale executions of political prisoners and their families.

One person who has come here to importune the United Nations to shore up its flagging standards is an Iranian with an exceptional right to speak. Dr. Saleh Rajavi has lost two members of his family to the state terror. A sister, Monireh, was imprisoned with her husband and two children in 1983. Her husband was executed and she, at age 27, was put to death in 1988.

Dr. Rajavi, a cardiologist, has lived in Paris since 1970. He practiced and taught medicine there until recently, when it became too dangerous.

Last April 24, Rajavi's brother Kazem, was gunned down in his car on a street in Geneva, where he worked for the mujaheddin, the Iranian resistance.

Dr. Rajavi wants to show members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights a copy of the Geneva police report, which is signed by four inspectors. It says that "one or more Iranian service agents were directly involved." Thirteen assassins made some three trips to plot the killing. Dr. Rajavi was supposed to be killed the same day. The Paris Surete now protects him.

The news of the killing, which went relatively unnoticed in the Western press, was big news in Iran. Rajavi's brother, Massoud, is the leader of the Iranian resistance, which has its headquarters in Baghdad. Massoud Rajavi is the founder of the National Council for Resistance. This new blow to his family is said to be a great morale-booster for the Iranian armed forces, who share the paranoid fear of their rulers that they are surrounded by bloodthirsty dissidents. The resistance says 443 Iranians have been executed since January. Political prisoners are now hanged as "drug dealers."

What vicious governments do to their unfortunate citizens at home is one thing, but when they venture to export their terrorism, the crime has unacceptable international import. Washington experienced the ugly phenomenon of having a foreign battle fought within its borders in 1976 when Orlando Letelier, leader of Chilean dissidents in exile, was killed by a car bomb on a D.C. street. Ronni Moffitt, a U.S. citizen, also was killed.

There are two other incidents in which Iranians who oppose their government have been shot dead in other countries. One occurred in Dubai, the other in Vienna. "Circumstantial evidence," says a report from Amnesty International, "suggests Iranian government involvement."

Vicious governments that escape censure for their vile acts tend to become bolder, another argument for condemning them.

The United Nations also forbore to condemn Iraq last year, mostly at our instigation. The United States, in company with several European countries who thought they could housebreak Saddam Hussein, leaned on the United Nations to pretend that he wasn't violating the civilized norms.

Turkey was not tagged for its abominable treatment of the Kurds. Of course not. Turkey is a NATO ally, and must not be embarrassed.

Jack Healey, executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A., whose word on human rights is still gospel, sees "a growing hesitancy in the U.N. that is very frightening."

"It is," he says, "a club mentality, and it is winning. There are two strains in that building, which should be the world's moral thermometer -- one is populism, the other is diplomacy, and diplomacy is gaining."

When the U.N. Human Rights Commission issued its whitewash on Iran, Healey attacked it forthrightly. "Iran is guilty of massive human rights violations, there has been no change in the last four years. And they should have done Iraq and Israel -- for its actions in Palestine."

Healey says that if the United Nations is to keep international respect, it cannot let the "club spirit" destroy its credibility on human rights.