THE ADMINISTRATION had its reasons two months ago for banning unauthorized travel to Iran by American private citizens. One was punitive: to enhance Iran's sense of international isolation for its seizure of the American hostages. A second was operational: to clear the decks before the rescue mission. Since then, however, enough other nations have kept or restored ties of various sorts with Iran to blunt the isolation campaign, and the rescue mission has failed. The United States, more by default than design, has drifted into a no-hands policy. Whatever it may be doing backstairs, it is not taking any public, visible initiatives to regain the hostages. It is seeking to minimize its humiliation and -- this time -- not to advertise its readiness to pay a great price to get them back.

This is the context in which to view the American government's relative diffidence concerning the 10 Americans attending the "Crimes of America" conference in Tehran. In other circumstances, the administration might have jumped to enforce its own strictures against unauthorized travel, if only to deter an American presence at an offensive propaganda festival and to spare itself further criticism for ineffectuality. But administration officials report they are withholding a decision to prosecute, waiting to see whether the conference helps to free the hostages. In practice, this means the 10 will almost certainly not be prosecuted: it makes no sense to stand ready to exploit the fruits of American participation, but to punish the participants if they fail.

The rationale for watching the conference quietly lies in the impact it may have on internal Iranian maneuvering. That is the arena in which American hopes for release of the hostages now painfully and necessarily reside.If international sympathy for the Iranian revolution is one of the trade-offs for release, then this conference, which is said to include representatives from 50 nations, is providing plenty of it. The conference also is providing a forum for foreign sympathizers with the revolution to tell Iranians that the prolongation of the crisis is costing Iran support abroad. All of this may be pretty unpromising and ignoble. But these days it seems to be all that the United States has got.