One can hardly imagine the circumstances that might pit a Northwest Washington neighborhood against the State Department and a fairly obscure nation located halfway around the globe. It would take far more imagination to believe that the neighborhood could win, but it has, at least through the first round.

The State Department, the west African nation of Benin and residents of the Woodley Park neighborhood squared off at the District's Board of Zoning Adjustments last week. At issue was whether the Benin Embassy could erect a 38-foot radio tower behind its Cathedral Avenue quarters. The diplomats said they were tired of getting in touch with their government only by telex, expensive telephone calls and diplomatic pouch. Their Woodley Park neighbors would have none of this, however: the tower would foul their television reception, look awful, emit radiation and be an all-too-tempting climb for their more adventurous children.

The neighbors went to the board ready to argue everything from endangered real estate appraisals to their reading of a 1982 foreign missions act, which they say disallows embassy expansions in residential neighborhoods. They didn't need all that. The board ruled that the antenna would be "visually intrusive" and would adversely affect the neighborhood. In other words, no radio tower.

The embassy has had little to say about all this, but the State Department clearly had a "Who do these people think they are?" attitude about the Woodley Park residents. The word "absurd" was used often. Absurd residents. Absurd city zoning laws. Suddenly, the building of that radio tower involved "the national interest." "We are extremely distressed and very puzzled," said one lawyer for the State Department. Communication, he said, is at the very heart of diplomacy. "Benin is a sovereign government and we don't have the right to question their needs," he said.

Attorneys at the State Department are said to be examining the prospects of appealing the ruling. There would be nothing wrong with that, just as there is nothing wrong with a group of residents wanting to have a voice in what gets constructed in their neighborhood. If their arguments are sound, then those residents deserve to win.