By Toby Harnden in Washington
America should seize every opportunity to force regime change in Syria and Iran, a former senior adviser to the White House has urged.
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“We need to do everything possible to destabilise the Syrian regime and exploit every single moment they strategically overstep,” said David Wurmser, who recently resigned after four years as Vice President Dick Cheney’s Middle East adviser.
“That would include the willingness to escalate as far as we need to go to topple the regime if necessary.” He said that an end to Baathist rule in Damascus could trigger a domino effect that would then bring down the Teheran regime.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, the first since he left government, he argued that the United States had to be prepared to attack both Syria and Iran to prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East that could result in a much wider war.
Mr Wurmser, 46, a leading neo-conservative who has played a pivotal role in the Bush administration since the September 11th attacks, said that diplomacy would fail to stop Iran becoming a nuclear power. Overthrowing Teheran’s theocratic regime should therefore be a top US priority.
Iran was using Syria as its proxy against Israel and among Sunni Arabs and both regimes had to be overthrown, he insisted.
“It has to be, because who they are is now defined around provoking a wider clash of civilisations with the West. It is precisely to avoid this that we need to win now.”
Both countries were part of a “proliferation consortium”, possibly in league with North Korea, that is helping Teheran to acquire a nuclear bomb, he said.
If Iran was seen to be powerless to prevent regime change in Syria, Mr Wurmser claimed, Teheran’s prestige would be undermined just as the Soviet Union’s was when it failed to come to the aid of Syrian forces during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Regime change was possible because Syria was “weak and rattled” while Iran had adopted a “go-for-broke strategy” of stirring up regional tensions to overcome the reality that “the foundations of the regime in Teheran are fragile”.
A situation such as last year’s attack on Israel by Hezbollah, which was backed by Iran and Syria, could provide an opportunity for US intervention.
Although Mr Wurmser’s recommendations have not yet become US policy, his hard-line stances on regime change in Iran and Syria are understood to have formed the basis of policy documents approved by Mr Cheney, an uncompromising hawk who is deeply sceptical about the effectiveness of diplomatic pressure on Teheran.
Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State and an advocate of multilateral diplomacy, currently holds sway within the Bush administration but Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue and its role in the Iraq insurgency could well shift the balance back towards Mr Cheney.
Limited strikes against Iranian nuclear targets would be useless, Mr Wurmser said. “Only if what we do is placed in the framework of a fundamental assault on the survival of the regime will it have a pick-up among ordinary Iranians.
“If we start shooting, we must be prepared to fire the last shot. Don’t shoot a bear if you’re not going to kill it.”
Mr Wurmser emphatically denied recent allegations he told a small group that Mr Cheney intended to press Israel to launch strikes against Iran in order to provoke a retaliation that the US would then respond to.
It was “fantastical” to suggest that he or Mr Cheney would “try to cause a war that the president expressly doesn’t want”, he said. “Everything that was done was to execute the policies of the president and not to subvert them.”
Mr Wurmser, an outspoken proponent of removing Saddam Hussein in the years before the 2003 invasion, was highly critical of British forces in southern Iraq. “Being in Basra, the British had a major role to play and they didn’t really play it very well.
“Under British presence, the Iranians extended their power considerably. British troops are still there but Iraqis see them as dead men walking…. everybody’s looking towards who is the real power that fills the vacuum and that then translates into an Iranian-American confrontation in that area.”
British withdrawal, he said, could be a plus for the US. “It frees our hand to deal aggressively with their [Iran’s] structures. Once we have responsibility for that area, we’ll have to do what we need to do and that could well mean troops on the ground.”
Although he conceded many mistakes had been made by the US in Iraq, Mr Wurmser said there were now reasons for optimism. “While Iraq became more violent, it also became in some ways the international bug-zapper of terrorists.
“It was the light that attracted all the terrorists of the world. And that became the battleground, and this is a decisive battle. I think the battle is turning in our favour now, and this is a defeat that it will take the al-Qaeda world a long time to recover from.”
In the meantime, the US still had the power to deal with Iran militarily. “If we decided from no preparation to doing something in Iran, while it would cause a lot of heartburn among many people in the Pentagon, we could do it.
“I would never underestimate the raw capability of the United States in any off-the-shelf situation. If that’s what we decided to do, things can be done.”