Among the victories won by President Bush in Helsinki yesterday was Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's potentially decisive support for the U.S. position that any humanitarian exemptions of food from the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq "must be strictly monitored by appropriate international agencies" rather than decided by individual countries.

Disagreements over whether the U.N. Security Council's Aug. 6 call for sweeping economic sanctions bars food shipments to Iraq and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait have set a number of Third World countries at odds with the United States and its Western allies.

In what Secretary of State James A. Baker III said was an attempt to dispel any doubts of U.S. and Soviet agreement over the meaning of the sanctions resolution, yesterday's statement said:

"The United States and the Soviet Union recognize that {the resolution} permits, in humanitarian circumstances, the importation into Iraq and Kuwait of food. The sanctions committee will make recommendations to the Security Council on what would constitute humanitarian circumstances. The United States and the Soviet Union further agree that any such imports must be strictly monitored by the appropriate international agencies to ensure that food reaches only those for whom it is intended, with special priority being given to meeting the needs of children."

That language parallels closely the arguments the United States has made to the Security Council's sanctions committee -- the body that is supposed to decide when humanitarian exemptions are necessary. Now, with the Soviet Union officially endorsing the same position, it will be much harder for proponents of large food shipments to get a green light from the sanctions committee.

Countries that attempt to make such shipments without the blessing of the sanctions committee theoretically could have their vessels stopped by U.S. warships and other naval forces empowered by the Security Council to halt evasions of the embargo.

Those countries wanting to send food say it is permissible to do so because the sanctions resolution exempted from the embargo "supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and, in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs." To withhold food shipments, they argue, could expose children, the sick and the elderly to malnutrition or even starvation.

The United States and its allies counter that the "humanitarian" provision allows shipment of any medical supplies but allows food only in cases where the sanctions committee has determined humanitarian relief is required and such food is distributed or supervised by recognized international organizations. Baker and other U.S. officials, noting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's statements that his country has sufficient food for at least eight weeks, contend that the point has not been reached where such relief is necessary.

"I hope that nobody around the world interprets this as our view that now there should be wholesale food shipments to Iraq," Bush said yesterday during his joint news conference with Gorbachev. "We need some kind of international agencies to see that this exception in the U.N. embargo is for humanitarian purposes. . . . So this should not be interpreted from the U.S. standpoint as a wholesale big hole in the embargo. That was not our intention, and I think the language is very clear on that point."

Gorbachev said that Bush "felt it necessary to reflect in our joint declaration that we see the need to uphold what was declared by the Security Council on this subject." Gorbachev added:

"And the Security Council was prepared to admit, for humanitarian purposes, the supply of medicines and of foodstuffs required first and foremost for children. . . . So we've taken a very clear-cut position on that. But we've also made it clear that this must take place within a framework of certain international organizations and being monitored by them at all stages of the operation."

So far, however, there has been no agreement in the United Nations about what international organizations might appropriately oversee food shipments and under what conditions. A closed-door meeting of the sanctions committee last Thursday was unable to agree on a mechanism to perform that task. Instead, its only action was to ask U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to collect more information about the effects of the embargo.

U.N. sources said that rifts over the food issue have not reached a point where the embargo is in danger of breaking down. The sources said the available evidence indicates that so far only Jordan, Libya and Yemen have been making some sporadic shipments of food and other supplies to Iraq. But several other countries -- among them Iran, China, Tunisia, India, Yugoslavia and Romania -- say they are considering resuming food shipments.

Most have based their arguments on humanitarian concerns. But some, like India, have said they need to help feed large numbers of their citizens who are stuck in Kuwait and Iraq. Others, such as Jordan, are motivated, in part, by the fact that their economies will be endangered if they are unable to sell food exports to Iraq.

Of the various countries that have shown signs of restiveness over the food issue, U.S. and U.N. officials say privately that the most potentially worrisome is China, since it is a permanent member of the Security Council with the power to veto decisions. As a result, the sources said, those members striving to maintain a united stance against Iraq must take great care not to alienate the Beijing government.