MOST Americans would agree that the debacle of arms shipments to Iran, and the possible diversion of profits there to the Nicaraguan contras, is hardly one of the grandest chapters in the history of their country. Most hostages in the Middle East remain unfreed. No Iranian ``moderates'' have come forward to say ``thank you'' for the arms, the cake, or the Bible sent them by the Reagan administration. A number of countries that have long had a double standard in their dealings with Iran have chuckled cynically to find the United States caught in such double-dealing, too. The cause of the contras may have been damaged, the United States has been embarrassed abroad, and the image of the Reagan presidency impaired at home.
It is not yet over. Congressional inquiries will drag on through much of 1987. The press scratches for fresh daily revelations. American reporters did not break the arms-to-Iran story (a Beirut newspaper did that), nor the diversion of funds to the contras (Ed Meese did that).
But like a bloodhound given the incriminating evidence to sniff, the American press has done a vigorous job of panting down the trail of ineptitude and wrongdoing.
Despite all that, the US can now count some gains from the Iran-contra affair:
Robert McFarlane, the national-security adviser who apparently sold President Reagan on this wacky scheme, is no longer in a position to influence policy; he is unlikely to return to such a position.
Vice-Adm. John Poindexter, Mr. McFarlane's successor, and Lt. Col. Oliver North, two key figures who seem to have furthered the idiocy after McFarlane's departure, have similarly lost position and influence.
The new national-security adviser, Frank Carlucci, is a man of wide international and governmental experience. He seems to understand that his role is to coordinate and plan policy, not to play international cops and robbers.
He has keelhauled his NSC team, disciplining and restaffing it in a manner that it is hoped will give it a badly needed sharper edge.
While everybody wishes Central Intelligence Agency Director William Casey a complete recovery, it is likely the CIA will get a new boss, and it is probably time for it. Candidates like William Webster, the squeaky-clean head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are being mentioned. If that kind of integrity is implanted at the head of the CIA, the country will be well served.
Talking of integrity, Secretary of State George Shultz, who opposed the arms-to-Iran venture, is back in focus as the principal implementer of President Reagan's foreign policy.
What this all seems to add up to is that:
The misuse of power in the administration has been tempered; professionalism and integrity in the conduct of foreign policy have been reestablished.
None of this is to suggest we are out of the woods on the Iran question. The President is still embattled. There may be a more businesslike approach to foreign policy in the future, but the President is still on the defensive about the way he handled things in the past.
There is a lot of confidence-rebuilding to be done abroad. It is one thing to spread disinformation to Libya, Iran, and Iraq, but a lot of America's friends and allies now need to be reassured that the United States is telling the truth when it is.
At least the Soviets, who have as much cynicism about what the Americans tell them as they show in what they tell the Americans, have no hang-ups about doing business with the Reagan administration. They want to press ahead with arms control negotiations.
All of this adds up to the fact that from the Iran mess there have emerged a few, perhaps sometimes overlooked, positive developments.