MOSCOW, SEPT. 7 -- Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said today that he is "ready if necessary" to go to Iraq to seek a peaceful settlement of the Persian Gulf crisis.

Shevardnadze's brief comment, made to Soviet journalists during his return flight from a historic four-day visit to Tokyo, indicated a possible willingness by the Soviet Union to become an active mediator between Washington and Baghdad. Despite frequent meetings with Arab leaders, Soviet officials previously rejected such a role.

Shevardnadze also urged a three-stage international conference on the gulf crisis and other Middle East problems. He said such a conference, sponsored by the United Nations, would take as its first issue the Persian Gulf crisis in an attempt to prevent a war. Separate conferences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the civil war in Lebanon could be held later, the Soviet foreign minister said.

Shevardnadze's statement, reported by the Soviet news agency Tass, came two days before Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Bush are scheduled to meet in Helsinki to discuss the gulf crisis, and it provided the clearest indication yet of the diplomatic approach the Soviets are likely to take at the summit.

Gorbachev met Wednesday with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, and the Soviet leader refused to soften Moscow's condemnation of Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. Last month, in an unprecedented display of post-Cold War cooperation, Shevardnadze and Secretary of State James A. Baker III issued a joint statement condemning the invasion.

Nevertheless, Aziz told reporters here Thursday that Iraq still considers the Soviet Union, which supplied Baghdad with arms and aid for three decades, a friendly power. Aziz said Iraq would welcome more active Soviet participation in mediating a settlement of the crisis.

At Sunday's Helsinki summit, Shevardnadze said, Gorbachev plans to emphasize the need for Arab countries to play a central role in resolving the gulf conflict. "In solving the crisis," he said, "there is a need to unite the forces with which the {Soviet Union} has good relations and the forces with whom the U.S. has good relations."

Shevardnadze said he recognizes that Baker views a Middle East conference "without any special enthusiasm," but he added: "There is no need to fear such a conference. We need only fear the consequences of the development of a conflict. If we do not solve it now, there could be horrific consequences."

During a visit to Saudi Arabia Thursday, Baker said the United States "has never ruled out" an international conference on the Middle East "at an appropriate time," but he added that "it would be a very bad mistake" to link the gulf crisis with the Arab-Israeli peace process, as he said the Soviet proposal would do. The United States contends that such linkage would cloud the issue and delay a settlement in the gulf.

Shevardnadze's remarks did not make clear how the three stages of the international conference would be related. But on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov rejected Iraqi attempts to link a solution to the gulf crisis with other Middle East issues, saying such a move would put off a gulf settlement "indefinitely."

Shevardnadze also signaled a possible improvement in Soviet relations with Israel, saying he is willing to work with Israel at the ministerial level. The Soviet Union has not had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1967, but ties have steadily improved.

Despite U.S.-Soviet cooperation, Soviet officials have expressed deep reservations about Bush's decision to accelerate the military buildup in the gulf region, and American officials have expressed concern about the continued presence of Soviet military advisers in Iraq.

Moscow has cut off arms sales to Iraq and voted with the United States on U.N. sanctions. Yet the Soviets are plainly disturbed that there are tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, less than 750 miles from the Soviet border. With the United States considering a long-term troop presence in the region, Gorbachev is likely to press Bush on his intentions if the crisis becomes a protracted affair.