If it pleases President Carter to argue that a "deeper failure" than the disaster of his hostage rescue mission would have been "the failure to attempt a worthy effort," so be it. There is probably no better face he can put on his incredibility intricate, star-crossed military effort to snatch back the kidnapped American hostages in Iran.

And if it strikes the administration as sound tactics to continue to insist, as Secretary of Defense Harold Brown put it, that "we're still not going to foreclose any option in terms of U.S. action," that's understandable. National security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski may even be indulged in his hope that the wreckage and the carnage at Desert One will "bring home to Tehran" the message: "Do not scoff at American power, do not scoff at American reach."

All this, in short, can be taken as no more than the sputterings of an overheated engine after the ignition has been turned off. And the more you hear about the realistic prospects for the rest of the rescue effort, the more you have to hope that it is nothing more than that. The dispersal of the hostages, the attitude of our most important allies and the reaction of Oman and others in the Persian Gulf -- which has to be the central concern of American policy -- all argue for quite a different and, in many ways, much more painful and difficult approach to the agonizing plight of the hostages.

There is no way to put it gently; if there ever was a quick fix for the recovery of the hostages, it has to be recognized that not even by the most optimistic administration timetable for allied political and economic sanctions is there and quick fix now. Economic sanctions might do nothing more than drive the Iranians into dependence on Soviet and Eastern bloc relief measures. Ultimate resort to mines and blockades would not only do the same, but alarm and/or anger our allies and also incite on a grand scale, from the Persian Gulf countries whose good will we so anxiously seek, the same anti-American response as did the aborted rescue attempt. In any event, there is no way of determining in advance whether a divided and supposedly disintegrating Iran could respond in any rational way to this kind of pressure.

It may be of no more than historical interest, now, that the departed secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, was even more profoundly opposed to the mining/blockade "option" than he was to the rescue effort. Indeed, he is said to have left town deeply relieved that the rescue effort was aborted before it reached downtown Tehran, for he did not share the president's view that it would have been worth doing "even had it been concluded without complete success."

To Vance, less-than-complete success could only have meant not only the loss of more American commandos, but the killing or leaving behind of some of the hostages, possibly heavy Iranian casualties and the seizing, in reprisal, of more Americans among the 200 or so still in Iran. Worse, as with mining or blockading ports, it would have been perceived, far more so than the aborted rescue effort, as just the sort of display of American "imperialism" that plays most easily into the hands of precisely those elements in the area that the United States is trying to contain.

The former secretary may have been wrong about that. But he was not alone in his view. His successor, Edmund Muskie, will find considerable support at the State Department and elsewhere for reliance on patient, protracted, collective diplomacy.

Other pressures -- or, in a sense, non-pressures -- will be operating in favor of this approach. The European allies and Japan, for example, are certain to favor it. The scattering of the hostages not only makes another rescue effort next to impossible but also removes them to some degree from center stage on the morning and evening news. There will not, presumably, be the same concentration of TV cameras fixed inexorably on the American compound and the Iranian mobs concentrated at its gates.

Would a downplaying of the hostages, as a media event and a political issue, doom them to captivity indefinitely? At least some experts will tell you that it might, on balance, hasten their release. The daily drumbeat of American attention, the urgent expressions of official concern, the plain evidence of the high price this country attached to their freedom -- all this, the theory goes, was exactly what the Iranian militants wanted.

This, inescapably, is one element that will have to be taken into account in the across-the-board review of Iranian policy now under way. In the end, the outcome my well turn on nothing more than the hard realities -- or some break growing out of the internal Iranian power struggle. As one senior State Department official puts it: "Like it or not, the administration is simply going to have to settle in and accept the most likely prospect -- that the hostages may well be there on the first anniversary of their capture, which is to say, election day."