IT IS TRULY regrettable that Iran's acting foreign minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, an authoritative confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini, was not present in the U.N. Security Council to hear Donald McHenry's presentation of the American case for the release of the hostages. For it is of the essence that a direct and honest dialogue be subsituted for the ragged exchange of statements and signals that is now the mode of communication between the United States and Iran, and the United Nations would be a good place to launch it. If Mr. Ghotbzadeh were there, moreover, he could test for himself the truth and significance of the position Mr. McHenry laid out to open the debate.

Mr.McHenry said, first of all, that "no country can break and ignore the law while seeking its benefits."Unquestionably, Iran is breaking the law by holding the hostages. It mortgages much of its immediate future as a nation if it does not act in a way that allows it to claim the protection of the law as events move forward.

At the same time, Mr. McHenry addressed the emotional core of Iran's conduct. "None of us is deaf to the passionate voices that speak of injustice injustice, that cry out for understanding," he said. "There is not a single grievance alleged or spoken in this situation that could not be heard in an appropriate forum"-- upon the release of the hostages. These are words of great portent. They signify a readiness to listen with complete seriousness to whatever the Iranian regime wishes to say to the United States. This is, we believe, a fair offer, and it would baffle Americans, and many others, if the Iranians did not take it up.

The latest moves in Iran are not good. For instance, the students have produced a document purporting to show that among their 50 hostages are two Cia officers. This is, of course, completely irrelevant. For even if the two are Cia men, they enjoy diplomaticimmunity on the same basis that intelligence officers do in many embassies, including Iranian embassies, abroad. Moreover, they have not been accused of any suspect activity.

Yet it cannot be ignored that to many Iranians "Cia" evokes the full panoply of fears and resentments left over from past American intervention in Iran. For some-- not the cynical leaders-- it may have been those fears that led them to mistake the shah's arrival in New York for medical treatment as part of a continuing pattern of American deviousness. Whether Iranians can understand the plain fact that America is not trying to restore the shah to power in Iran is a question. If Mr. Ghotbzadeh is among those who do not truly understand this, it is all the more unfortunate that he did not come to the United Nations to hear the case authoritatively stated by Ambassador McHenry.