The principle of unfettered U.N. inspections in Iraq, over which the Clinton administration is about to order airstrikes, is a pivotal one.

Repressive dictators who choose to hide ugly things, like weapons of mass destruction, can easily do so if they can control the visits of international inspectors -- making the whole exercise a wasted and fruitless one.As a case in point, we are reminded of a different type of U.N. inspection -- for human rights violations -- in Iran several years ago that went awry because the U.N. inspector allowed himself to be led around by the nose.

A Salvadoran lawyer, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, had been assigned by the U.N. Human Rights Commission to find out what went on in Iran regarding imprisonment, torture and execution. Excited to be approved for a Tehran visit, the enthusiastic but ignorant U.N. official delightedly reported on his return that everything was hunky-dory.

We contacted our U.N. sources, and Iranian sources in Tehran, to find out how Pohl had been led around by the nose and what he missed.

Back then, as now, Iran had hundreds of prisons involved in the most medieval kinds of torture and punishment. It was presided over by Director General Assadollah Lajevardi, who is known widely in Iran as the "Butcher of Evin" because of his terror-filled stint as warden of Evin, the most brutal of Tehran's 40 prisons.

The former lingerie peddler packed 60 prisoners into a single cell in Evin, tortured thousands in at least 30 different ways and executed thousands more.

Lajevardi's philosophy, he himself put it, was one which seemed to rank him right up there with Hitler and Stalin as an exterminator. He once called Russia's dictator Stalin a "godless idiot who killed 60 million in the service of his stupid socialism." Then he added: "Isn't Islam worthy of a similar tribute to its grandeur?"

Lajevardi made sure that Pohl was only taken to one prison - Evin - during his visit. And he was only allowed to see a single part of it, a comfortable complex built to fool Red Cross inspections, temporarily populated with happy prisoners.

Pohl bought it and came back to issue a report that was laughable for its naivete. The very fact that the Butcher of Evin secretly praised his report inside Iran was evidence enough that it was an ugly whitewash.

As an example of how easily misled U.N. inspectors can be when they fail to insist on independence and integrity, consider that Pohl had ignorantly reported, based on official Iranian government statements, that there had been no public execution for the previous five months.

Our own cursory examination of the government-run Iranian press --radio and newspaper reports -- revealed 87 executions in the one month period before and during Pohl's visit. Six of these individuals were stoned to death for "prostitution." Two others were executed for sex crimes, one of them for "fornication with a close relative." Eleven were executed for murder.

Which is to say there is no point sending inspectors to Iraq unless they are independent - like the American representatives Saddam has tried to get kicked off the teams - and can go to places like his huge palace complexes to find what Saddam is hiding.