THERE SEEMS TO BE something missing in all the stories about the return of the hostages. There is talk of returning Iranian assets and there is talk of spare military parts and there is talk of conditions and demands and, in short, the sort of talk that leads you to believe that if the hostages come back and some demands are met, the whole thing is over. There is, though, another shoe to be dropped, another issue that will be raised -- the little matter of revenge.

I am a bit surprised at myself for even thinking about it, and I will be even more surprised if some politicians do not take advantage of the national mood and scream for some Iranian scalps. After all, nobody has yet mentioned anything about an apology from Iran, about a promise that it won't happen again, about a recognition that what happened was wrong. None of that seems to be in the cards.

The fact remains, though, that there is something wrong with one nation taking hostages, holding them at least a year, keeping them from their families, keeping their families from them, robbing them of a year of their lives, maybe messing around with their health -- mental and physical -- and then, when it feels like it, saying it's all over. You can all go on your way.

There is something wrong with breaking the rules and simply getting away with it. The hostages, after all, were not criminals and probably not spies. Even if some of them were spies, that was not the reason they were taken. They were taken as a matter of policy and it mattered not to the Iranian militants nor to their government whether the people inside the embassy were spies or Nobel peace prize laureates. What mattered for their purposes was that they were Americans.

But how can you punish a nation? How can you distinguish between the guilty, who are few, and the innocent, who are many? How can you hold religious zealots accountable for what they do when they hold themselves accountable only to God? How can you expect them to understand that taking hostages is not permitted -- that it simply is not done -- no matter how convinced they are of the justice of their cause?

They see themselves as former hostages of a sort -- hostages to American policy vis-a-vis the late shah. It was our arms that propped him up and our CIA that helped engineer his return to power and our air force that trained his air force and our army that trained his army. In many ways, the shah was our surrogate and people who were tortured or jailed or exiled or whatever can be excused if they hold us responsible, I would do the same thing.

Nowhere was that clearer than at the recent United Nations session. Journalists gathered there around the Iranian prime minister and were stunned to see him take off his shoes and show the world how he had been tortured on the bottoms of his feet. This was graphic evidence not only of what makes a zealot, but also it is sometimes senseless to deal with them the way you would with ordinary people. The language of diplomacy is not their language. You can not reach them in ordinary ways.

It is all so complicated, so inexorably wound up with oil and the Middle East crisis as a whole. What do you do with a nation that splits in your face, but has all that oil? What do you do with a country that burns your flag, but borders on the Soviet Union? What do you do with a country that takes your countrymen hostage, but whose ruler, the ayatollah, is emerging as the most charismatic force in the Middle East since Gamal Abdel Nasser?

You do what you have to do. What you do, apparently, is take your hostages home when the time comes and call the matter over. Even-steven. No-fault hostage taking. You recognize your limitations, the bind the energy crisis puts you in, the impossibility of dealing with zealots, the impracticality of punishing a nation, the difference between rhetoric and reality, and you declare that matter closed.

Some will argue that a great nation that gets treated this way and takes it is a great nation no more -- that it has conceded it can be pushed around and that it neither demands nor expects the most elemental form of a respect, the kind the Soviets get almost as matter of course. Thanks to events, some of that is true.

But a truly great nation is one that can come to terms with reality, that deals in the real world, that will not go dizzy in a search for a scapegoat, that will not lose itself in some updated version of the Who-Lost-China? hysteria that gripped the nation in the 1950s. A truly great nation will, when the time comes, simply welcome the hostages home. It would in short, rather keep its self-respect than drop its other shoe.