THE ADMINISTRATION obviously should not act in a way likely to endanger the lives of the Americans being held hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But to say that is not counsel pussycat acquiesence in the reckless way the Iranian authorities-cum-mob are behaving. It is fraudulent to suggest that the poor officials are helpless to control the mob's passions. They are not. On many other occasions they have shown they can keep control, and they must be held accountable for discharging the basic duty of safeguarding foreigners.That the invaders of the embassy are followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, who has personally endorsed their deed, pinpoints the responsibility. This is no mob on the loose. It is a force under tight control.

The invaders' demand that the United States send back the shah, who is in a New York hospital undergoing cancer treatment, is, in equal parts, contemptible and frivolous. No extradition treaty exists under which Iran could gain his return, and even this administration -- which declined to admit the ousted shah until cancer made him eligible for "humanitarian" entry -- rejects the suggestion that the terms of his sojourn are negotionable with a mob. And speaking of mobs, the U.S. government surely can find ways to return some of those visiting and protesting Iranians in this country, if they have violated the terms of their stay.

The ayatollah's people say they find in the hospitality offered the shah reason to break off relations with the United States, which is, among other things, Iran's chief arms supplier and the chief educator of its students abroad. That is Iran's privilege. It has to be said, however, that the invasion of the embassy fully demonstrates the futility of the administration's trying to keep lines open to the Khomeini regime. A power struggle is going on betwen fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Khomeini and pragmatists led by the nominal prime minister, Medhi Bazargan. The fundamentalists seem to have seized on the shah-in-American issue (no pressure was put on Mexico in the shah's months there) to paint the pragmatists as softliners. When politics comes down to a competition in anti-Americanism, there is little room for an official American role. Specifically, we do not see how the American embassy in Tehran, or the Iranian mission in Washington, can stay open in these conditions.

Precisely because suspicion of the United States is so widespread, however, the administration cannot let itself be drawn into any sort of crude campaign against the ayatollah. He has alienated the unfanatical segment of Iranians, including the hard-core left, and the non-Persian ethnic minorities, and he has provoked virtually every one of Iran's neighbors. But it should be left to Iran's citizens, or neighbors, to deal with him as they will. Any other course promises only to hand the ayatollah, or a successor, the unifying platform of anti-Americanism. It is frustrating to wait for events to sort things out in Iran -- especially because things will almost surely get worse before they get better -- but events are moving.