The State Department is refusing to process more than 8,400 applications for political asylum filed by Iranians fleeing the Islamic Republic of Iran because U.S. officials fear reprisals against the 52 American hostages, government sources say.

The delay has caught hundreds of Iranian applicants in a bureaucratic never-never land where they cannot leave the country to visit wives and children or, except in the rarest of circumstances, even dying relatives because they would not be permitted to reenter the U.S.

At the same time, many have found it extremely difficult to obtain permission to work, and when such permission is granted it is frequently valid for only a short period of time. As a result, many have been forced to work illegally, live on meager savings or depend on the genorosity of friends and relatives.

The delay, which has been in effect for months, is based on the assumption that Islamic Republic officials might interpret the granting of political asylum by the U.S. government to Iranians, particularly those who were former officials in the imperial government, as a provocation, government sources said. State Department officials are anxious to avoid any situation that could pose a threat to the American hostages, especially during the delicate, ongoing negotiations for their release, they said.

Among those 8,400 are about 2,500 Iranians studying in the United States who have asked to remain here because they fear for their lives if they were to return to their country, plus at least 1,000 former officials, diplomats and career military men who served under the late shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Thousands more are members of minority groups who have seen their businesses in Iran confiscated because many of the new Iranian leaders -- who are devout Shiite Moslems -- see them as undesirable elements.

A number of the fleeing minorities have benefited from long-existing relief agency networks set up to help them relocate, but not so the former members of the shah's government. They have found themselves alone in the nation they once considered their closest friend, with their applications for political asylum ignored and their requests for jobs spurned.

The bitterness that his perceived American callousness has caused runs deep.

"Someday we will go back and liberate our country," said one admiral who, after more than a year in Washington, finally won a two-month work permit. "But if you think that we will still feel friendly with your government, you are wrong. We have been ignored by people we thought were our friends when we needed help.

"How can we forget that?"

When the end came in Tehran, the admiral said, he was thrown in prison, beaten and threatened with death, as much for his having served under the shah as for having studied in American war colleges and working here for his country for almost half of his 30-year military career.

So when he was finally able to escape Iran in late 1979, he made his way to Washington. Here, he was certain, he would be welcomed as a longtime friend who had spent his life trying to transform Iran into the bulwark against communism the United States had always sought.

Today, the admiral spends his days in a cramped Washington-area apartment, his life savings gone along with his dreams of help from the American government. Though individual Americans have been gracious and kind, he has nonetheless been rejected for every job for which he has applied.

Two weeks ago he had to tell his son, a superior student at a local university, that he would no longer be able to attend college because he had no more money.

"My son said to me, very bitterly, 'Your life was wasted. Must mine be wasted, too?" the admiral said. "I did not have an answer for him. What could I say?"

Another Iranian asylum applicant, a former senior diplomat, lives with his son in a tiny New York apartment. His wife had gone to Canada to correct a visa problem last April when, abruptly, the United States canceled its relations with Iran and invalidated all visas held by Iranians outside of the United States.

Because of that, his wife was refused permission to reenter the United States. Since his son and two daughters are students at American universities, the diplomat cannot leave the country to see his wife because he would not be permitted to return. So each day they telephone each other in hope that he has news about his application for political asylum or that the restriction on visas has been lifted.