The release of Richard Queen provided a rare bit of good news from Iran -- but also something more. The event shattered the administration's claim that there was no responsible figure to deal with in Tehran. It deepened the suspicion that domestic political considerations have governed President Carter's handling of the hostage question all along.

Back in November, with the Tehran embassy besieged, the president thrust himself forward as a take-charge leader. He visited with families of the hostages. He negotiated with diplomats shuttling between Washington and Tehran. He left unlit lights on the White House Christmas tree as an indication that the hostages were "a constant preoccupation of mine." And he used his deep involvement in Iran as a reason for not entering the primary debates with Sen. Kennedy.

With the failure of the rescue mission in April, it became plain that there was no more political mileage in the hostages. Kennedy was a goner by that time anyhow. Carter came out of the Rose Garden, barnstormed through the country and began to profile himself against Ronald Reagan by visits abroad. When it was observed that Carter seemed, suddenly, to have turned his back on the hostages, the charge was denied in the most vehement way. At the American Embassy in Madrid on June 26, for example, the president said of the hostages: "This problem is constantly on my mind, and I never meet with a foreign leader or in a group of foreign leaders without very early raising this problem with them."

But the circumstances of Queen's release falsify that claim. The president was fishing in Alaska when Queen was let out, and his first reaction to the news was one of skepticism. Far from being as he once asserted "constantly preoccupied" by the hostages, Carter had taken his distances. The fact is that his pattern of behavior on the hostages corresponds exactly to political advantage.

Precisely because of his early personal commitment, Carter was under tremendous pressure to do something about the hostages. When dealing with Ayatollah Khomeini proved hard, the president fell into a famous trap -- the mirror-image fallacy. Basically, the administration bought the mirror-image fallacy that raditionally befuddles "enlightened moderates "confronted with revolutionary regimes. The fallacy lies in the notion that, on the other side, there are sensible, responsible people (people even as you and I) who would be prepared to compromise their way to an acceptable outcome if only the militant hard-liners could be eased out of the picture.

Even before the shah fell, the administration and the State Department were casting around for a middle-of-the-road civilian coalition as a replacement. Though no such animal existed in Iran, the administration insisted on finding it even amidst the frenzy that swept in the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. Thus as soon as the hostages were seized, a line of communication was opened up (through Ramsey Clark, among others) to Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. As it happened, the administration's embrace only made it easier for the religious militants around the ayatollah to force Bazargan from office.

Still the administration persisted in the effort to find good guys in Tehran. Through United Nations Secretary General Kurk Waldheim, it began talks with Abol-hassan Bani-Sadr -- first in his role as foreign minister, after January in his role as president of Iran. In the course of those talks, Carter made significant concessions.

He accepted the principle of an international tribunal sitting in judgment on relations between past American presidents and the shah of Iran. He hounded the shah out of this country and through Panama to Egypt. He suspended a declared policy of economic sanctions against Iran and held his hand on military action.

When the negotiations collapsed, the administration had a ready-made alibi. There was no government in Tehran. Only chaos and confusion.

But the release of Queen belies that excuse. It shows that there is a ruler in Tehran with authority to cut one hostage out of the pack and effect his release in an almost surgical manner at a time of high turbulence associated with an attempted coup d'etat. That ruler, now as in the past, is Ayatollah Khomeini.

In other words, the failure to win release of the hostages is not a matter of crazy circumstance. It is a matter of inability to read a poltical situation correctly, of willingness to pay out concessions to an uncompromising regime in return for nothing, of dribbling away bargaining strength. The hostages are as far from being free now as they ever were. The country has suffered a national humiliation -- not because of the nature of things, but mainly because of the policies of Jimmy Carter.