NEGOTIATING with Iran is tough enough and on top of that President Carter must in effect negotiate with other nations in the Persian Gulf region, and check out the terms of any Iranian bargain with them. Most of these countries are friends of the United States on account of their oil and wealth, their aversion to Soviet and radical inroads, their weakness and their general Western connections. That is the basis of their claim to be consulted by Washington in this instance.

But there is a difference. Almost all states in the region, especially Egypt, have fretted at the United States' failure to assert its interests forcefully in the year-long crisis, even while some of the same states, including jittery Saudi Arabia, have feared that the United States would assert itself too forcefully. But for many countries in the region, the crisis has also had its plus side: it has given Iraq the opportunity to settle scores with Iran. Gulf states see their interest now not so much in ending the hostage dispute as in ending it in a way tailored to their own current requirements. These are not just to strengthen the American capacity to play a patron's role but also to support Iraq in its war with Iran and to nip the region-wide political threat of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution. Hence, the Iraqis, Saudis, Jordanians and the others do not want the United States to give Iran, in a hostage settlement, even in an Iran-Iraq cease-fire, either arms or the comfort of a political thaw. Implicitly, and in some cases nearly explicitly, they warn that their cooperation in various economic and political projects of value to Americans is in the balance.

The administration has shown signs of discomfort at being squeezed not only by admittedly hostile Iranians on one side but by supposedly friendly Arabs on the other. Several times, for instance, Secretary of State Muskie has said that it would amount to a pro-Iraq tilt if, after a hostage agreement, the United States refused at Arab insistence to ship now-frozen (but not new) military supplies to Iran, which is fighting a defensive war. Delighted to see an Arab army reducing a Persian and revolutionary foe, most Arab states have been slow to grasp that Iraq's war policy could produce the ethnic disintegration or even the Soviet-sponsored dismemberment of Iran -- hardly a result in the Arab's own interest.

Still, the administration cannot afford to forget where the American priority lies. It lies not simply in retrieving the hostages but in leaving the United States in as good a position as possible under the circumstances to conduct a long-term strategic policy in the Persian Gulf region. This should forbid the United States to give any military support to Iran, in a hostage agreement, while the fighting with Iraq goes on. If some Arab states are shortsighted, they can be talked to. The need remains to distinguish between dealing with a hostile regime for a limited purpose and strenthening relations with friendly regimes for the sake of long-term goals.