OF ALL THE ACCOUNTS of the Carter administration's tortuous attempts to spring the hostages, none has been more engrossing than the three-hour show that ABC News produced on Jan. 22 and updated on Jan. 29. Correspondent Pierre Salinger's reporting made it gripping journalism. Some of the positions attributed to the Carter administration during its 14-month travail were especially gripping -- and disturbing.

The first episode that stands out came in negotiations meant to tie the fate of the hostages to establishment of a United Nations commission to investigate the shah's and the United States' past activity in Iran. Early on, says Mr. Salinger, President Carter, while saying repeatedly in public that the United States would never apologize, agreed privately (in Mr. Salinger's words) to "in effect admit past American errors." Later, Ayatollah Khomeini upset a painstakingly contrived scenario by demanding that the U.N. commission make a partial report before it could even see the hostages, let alone obtain their release. Argentinian exile Hector Villalon, a middleman who was on the phone to the White House, recalls: "President Carter himself . . . finally said the U.S. is not opposed to the commission doing its duty. That was the formula." But the Venezuelan commissioner, later joined the two of the other four, "refused to go along with Khomeini's demand despite Carter's pleas, saying it was unacceptable blackmail," Mr. Salinger says.

In a second episode, the Iranians were trying to induce Panama to extradict the shah, or at least to arrest him -- an idea, says Mr. Salinger, that "the American government came to accept." According to an aide to the shah, Gen. Torrijos had told the shah he might have "to announce that you're under house arrest just to . . . play along this drama." But Iran failed to meet the general's condition of moving the hostages to government custody. The shah fled. "Hamilton Jordan was frantically trying to get the shah kept in Panama," Mr. Salinger claims, "while White House counsel Lloyd Carter was ordering up the plane that took the shah to Egypt."

Meanwhile, Egyptian journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal had been passing American messages to Ayatollah Khomeini. After the rescue attempt, he says, he was asked by the person who had been transmitting Washington's views and requests to him to plant the following idea with the Iranians: "This is the time to be real Moslems. Now they have proved themselves against the power of the United States, and United States has proved that it had no guts, and that it's only a giant with a feet of clay. And, you know, now it's time to show Moselm [humanity] and then the hostages can be taken to the . . . middle of the ruins of the American airplanes, and from there released as a show of Islamic tolerance." Adds Mr. Heikal, "And I look to the man who passed to me this message. I said, 'Do you really, do they really want me to pass this message to Tehran?' And he said, 'Yes, I think so.' I said, 'They must think I'm crazy.'"

These are but three episodes in a complex and shadowy diplomatic record. Each of them portrays, over Carter administration denials, a dubious if not disgraceful compromise that the last administration seemingly was prepared to make and that it was spared from making only by the clear judgment or moral indignation of other actors. No doubt there were many reasons why the Iranians pegged their demands as high as they did. The question raised by ABC's report is whether they felt, from the evidence unfolding before them, that they could get pretty much what they pleased.