President Carter's drive to win congressional repeal of the U.S. arms embargo against Turkey narrowly cleared its first hurdle yesterday when the House International Relations Commitee backed the request, 18 to 17.

That cleared the way for the House to act on the administration's contention that the three-year-old embargo should be dropped because it has failed to force Turkish withdrawal from Cyprus and threatens to disrupt the NATO alliance.

But, as yesterday's one-vote-margin victory made clear, the administration's request still faces a rough passage through the House and the Senate.In fact, if the House commitee had delayed its vote by 10 minutes, the result would have been an almost irretrievable defeat for the administration.

What made the difference was the failure of Rep. Michael J. Harrington (D-Mass.) to arrive in time to vote. Harrington, who represents a district with a large Greek-American population and who is being challenged by a Greek-American in this year's congressional primaries, intended to vote against lifting the embargo.

However, because his plane from Boston was delayed, he didn't get to the meeting until minutes after the vote had been counted and announced. That spared the administration an 18-to-18 tie - a tally insufficient to move the repeal request out of committee.

The committee wrote the embargo repeal into the fiscal 1979 military aid bill, which it then approved by voice vote. Chairman Clement J. Zablocki (D. Wis.) said he expects the aid bill to come up for debate and a vote by the full House toward the end of May.

Congress imposed the embargo in February 1975, after Turkey's invasion of Cyprus. Turkish forces continue to occupy roughly 40 percent of that island country, which has an 80 percent Greek population.

Despite arguments by U.S. military and diplomatic officials that the embargo's effects have been counterproductive, efforts to repeal it have been fiercely resisted by the Greek-American community and its supporters in Congress.

Although the embargo has been modified to permit Turkesh arms purchases of up to $175 million a year, it has caused a steady deterioration in relations between Washington and Ankara. Initially, Turkey retaliated by cloding most of the U.S. bases there and placing heavy restrictions on those that remain open.

The tensions escalated after Bulent Ecevit bacame Turkish prime minister in January. He has threatened to close the U.S. bases permanently and loosen or sever Turkey's ties to NATO.

That prompted the Carter administration to reverse its original position that the embargo should be retained. The administration now argues that repeal is necessary to promote movement toward a Cyprus settlement and to prevent the unraveling of NATO defenses on the alliance's southeastern flank.

The final debate before yesterday's committee vote echoed the now-familiar arguments that have been made on both sides of the controversy.

Those opposing repeal contended that Turkey had violated U.S. law by using American arms for aggresive purposes and had shown intransigence by its continued refusal to withdraw from Cyprus.

Supporters of the administration request argued that U.S. strategic interests require continued Turkich participation in NATO, that Turkey has made clear it will not negotiate on Cyprus while the embargo remains in effect and that the president should be given greater felxibility to deal with the situation.

In the course of the debate, the committee adopted proposal by Rep. Jonathan B. Bingham (D-N.Y.) that appeared to sway some members into voting for repeal.

Bingham's proposal attached language to the bill declaring that settlement of the Cyprus dispute remains a central objective of U.S. policy. It also would require the president to certify that any military aid given Greece or Turkey is intended only for defensive purposes and to Congress at 60-day intervals on progress toward a Cyprus settlement.

In addition to approving the embargo repeal, the committee agreed to changes requested by the administration in its original fiscal 1979 military aid requests for Greece and Turkey.

The revised requests would give Turkey $175 million in arms credits and $50 million for nonmilitary, balance of payments support. Greece would receive $140 million in Arms credits and, in accordance with a proposal by Bingham, $35 million in grants of arms and equipment. The committee also voted to give Cyprus $5 million for refugee assistance.

The rest of the $2.9 billion military aid bill was passed by the committee in substantially the form requested by the administration.

In another action yesterday, the committee added to the military aid bill three amendments offerd by Rep. Donald M. Fraser (D-Minn.) and designed to promote a strong U.S. human rights policy.

One would change the language in existing law to make clear that congressional strictures about withholding human rights records are not merely a policy recommendation. It specifies that they are statutory requirements that must be observed unless the president determines that the aid is in the U.S. national interest.

The other amendments would place greater restrictions on providing U.S. military training and selling equipment to the police forces of countries found to be consistent violators of human rights