THE HOSTAGE CRISIS is increasingly being seen in the Moslem world as a rude, gratuitous and dangerous distortion, something that was essentially unacceptable in the first place and which cannot be indulged or afforded now. This attitude was evident at the Islamic foreign ministers' conference in Islamabad. The nearly 40 nations represented there made plain their impatience at Iran's lingering taste for martyrdom and their anxiety over the way the crisis of feeding tensions in the region and contributing to great-power muscle-flexing. Pausing only briefly to rap the failed American rescue mission, the conference called on Iran to solve the crisis quickly "in the spirit of Islamic tolerance." The United States was also summoned to do its part, but it was clear that Iran's closest friends, including even countries as antagonistic to the United States as Libya, regard Tehran as the party that must make the key moves.

It is a sobering irony that, even as a group of countries with many suspicions of the United States was taking a positive step in the hostage crisis, fellow members of the Atlantic alliance were taking a step back. Britain -- brave, big-talking Britain -- had agreed with its European partners only last Sunday on a limited level of sanctions against Iran. On Tuesday, however, faced with assorted protests and evasions at home, the Thatcher government drew back. Some sort of ripple effect in Europe is now likely. No reasonable person has claimed that sanctions would ensure liberty for the hostages. Reasonable people have felt, however, that in the absence of any other accepted and feasible plan, sanctions might help concentrate the attention of at least some Iranians on the advantages to them of liquidating the crisis. Surprisingly, the Europeans who are denying Washington their cooperation on this issue seem to have no sense of how they are fouling the atmosphere in which questions of seemingly more direct relevance to Europe will be weighed.

The principal burden of choice in the hostage crisis remains where it has always been: on the Iranians. The new parliament, which convenes next Wednesday, is the body to which Ayatollah Khomeini has assigned final disposition of the issue. Whether the parliament merely replicates the configuration of forces that has kept the Americans captive for more than six months, or whether the right-wing clerical elements ascendant in the parliament believe they have won their point by winning the election is the key question. In any event, the parliament is a body that responsible people both inside and outside Iran can identify and appeal to as the formal embodiment of the national will. In Iran, that is progress.