ONE LARGE RISK in launching a rescue mission in Iran was always that, if it failed, it would damage the other possible ways by which the hostages might be freed. It would do this because it would stir up the nationalist passions by which militants of both the left and the right tried to manipulate the nation as a whole. This in turn would further undercut those elements who were ready to contemplate a negotiated solution but had not been able to secure the release of the hostages so far. It was precisely this risk that Mr. Carter had to weigh when he decided that the rescue operation offered a surer and safer prospect for getting back the hostages than allowing events to play out as they were.

It is necessary to know much more than the administration has so far made public about the details of the rescue plan to make a fair judgment of whether the president's decision was wise.But it is clear already that Mr. Carter now faces an extraordinarily difficult time in continuing his quest for the hostages. The failure of the rescue mission puts immense pressure on him to show that, in trying to solve the problem in one quick stroke, he has not tightened the knot. It will take some time to see what the deeper Iranian reaction will be, beyond the outrage and sense of triumph immediately evident in Tehran. Yet if Iranians think hard about it -- and Americans and their allies and all others interested in quickly ending this crisis should encourage them to think hard about it -- they may very well conclude that the rescue operation was not the unmitigated disaster for the United States and triumph for Iran that it is being cracked up to be.

Whatever one takes Jimmy Carter's motives to be, he is, as far as the hostages are concerned, a driven man. No one can be surprised to hear Ayatollah Khomeini declaring that Mr. Carter has "lost his mind." But even the Kremlin, while attacking Mr. Carter, is now advertising his "madness" and "unpredictability." We do not think Mr. Carter means to undertake any act faintly akin to the Christmas bombing of Hanoi. We do believe it would be in Iran's self-interest to understand that he is sorely provoked. Iranians should now be able to see, moreover, that their own disregard for international law in the matter of the hostages has shredded the basis on which they could indict the United States for violation.

Though the rescue operation failed, it demonstrated that the United States has a long military reach, that it has friends ready to help in the area, that it can intrude undetected deeply into Iranian territory, and that the encouragement others have given the Iranian revolution has not so far been transformed into actual measures of protection. If, for instance, the allies agreed last week to a schedule of sanctions in order to head off the prospect that Jimmy Carter would use force on his own, then there now is even better reason than there was before for them to stay on the sanctions road.

Finally, Iranians should be encouraged to look about them and to ask whether the unnecessary and dangerous perpetuation of the hostage crisis really makes sense for a country whose political system, economy and territorial integrity show ominous signs of disintegration. Well before the rescue attempt, some Iranians in authority were asking this question. It would be reckless -- and startling -- if the question were not being asked with redoubled urgency now.