Citing unnamed senior officials in the Trump administration, as well as European and Arab country officials, the Wall Street Journal piece noted that the White House was trying to balance the "seemingly contradictory vows to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and to aggressively challenge the military presence of Iran – one of Moscow's most critical allies – in the Middle East."
"If there's a wedge to be driven between Russia and Iran, we're willing to explore that," a senior administration official reportedly told the newspaper.
Moscow almost immediately responded to the WSJ piece, calling it little more than "unfounded speculation," and an attempt to poison relations between Washington and Moscow before they ever have a chance to improve. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the Wall Street Journal was the one trying to "drive a wedge" between the two powers.
"Such statements in the American press should probably be taken quite seriously," the expert said. "But I think that Russia, for its part, must work to try and influence Washington's thinking about Iran posing a threat to the United States and its ally Israel."
Presenting Tehran as a threat to Washington's security is simply "wrong," Dolgov added. "The Iranians themselves have repeatedly said that the main reason behind their confrontation with Israel is the Palestinian issue. If a solution to that issue is found, the conflict will in many respects be settled. However, its existence facilitates the promotion of this aggressive rhetoric."
For his part, Radio Sputnik contributor Ilya Kharlamov emphasized that while Western observers are now trying to 'read the tea leaves' for hints about what it will take for Russia to break its partnership with Iran in Washington's favor, "the fact is that the Russia-Turkey-Iran format [of cooperation] is playing a more and more important role in resolving the Syrian crisis, and none of the members of this triumvirate have any plans to break it."
Ultimately, Kharlamov suggested that so long as Washington does not clearly define their priorities on the Iran issue, or continues to make cryptic comments about the country being 'put on notice' without clarification, speculation, rumors and theories of the kind found in the Wall Street Journal story will continue.
"Trump's people simply have not yet had the time to get a full grasp on all the intricacies on foreign policy," the journalist suggested. As a result, "one simply needs to gather patience, and let others write articles with all sorts of dubious conspiracy theories."
CIS Institute Deputy director Vladimir Yevseyev, meanwhile, thinks that while Trump may realize, at some level, that the Russian-Iranian coalition has been highly effective against Daesh, his ties to Israel may now be pushing him toward confrontation with Tehran.
"The Israeli lobby assisted Donald Trump during his election campaign," the analyst noted. "He may have certain obligations to the state of Israel – toward fulfilling those promises that he gave them during the campaign. In any case, the restoration of close ties with Israel is one of the most likely vectors of the new administration's foreign policy."
Yevseyev noted that as far as Moscow was concerned, "Russia's relations with Iran, just like its relations with China or other countries, must not be considered in the context of Russian-US relations. The same is true for US relations with these countries. These are various tracks which should not be crossed. If the Kremlin holds out on its position, it will be able to continue mutually beneficial cooperation with Iran, including in the military sphere, and to ignore the 'signals' coming from overseas."
Whether that is the case or not, Yevseyev noted that the worsening in relations between Washington and Tehran was extremely alarming. Washington's rhetoric may influence the political situation in the Middle Eastern country, including in the presidential elections, set for May, and force President Hassan Rouhani into a more conservative position. In that case, the analyst noted, a growing mutual enmity may eventually lead to open confrontation.
Russian observers' assessment has generally been matched by US paleo-conservatives, who supported Trump as the candidate who could save the country from endless wars in the Middle East. In his column for The American Conservative, veteran paleo-con commentator Pat Buchanan warned Trump against escalating the conflict with Iran, particularly if it has to do with trivial issues like missile testing or Riyadh's military adventurism in Yemen.
"The problem with making a threat public [of putting Iran] 'on notice' – is that it makes it almost impossible for Iran, or Trump, to back away," Buchanan noted, referring to National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's remarks last week at a press briefing following Tehran's missile testing. "Tehran seems almost obliged to defy [the US], especially the demand that it cease testing conventional missiles for its own defense," the commentator added. The threat also increases the probability of the architects of the nuclear deal, including President Rouhani, are "thrown out [of office] in this year's election."
"Along with the 15-year war in Afghanistan and our wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen, our 21st- century US Mideast wars have cost us trillions of dollars and thousands dead. And they have produced a harvest of hatred of America that was exploited by al-Qaeda and ISIS to recruit jihadists to murder and massacre Westerners."
"Osama's bin Laden's greatest achievement was not to bring down the twin towers and kill 3,000 Americans, but to goad America into plunging headlong into the Middle East, a reckless and ruinous adventure that ended her post-Cold War global primacy," the observer emphasized. "Unlike the other candidates, Trump seemed to recognize this."
"It was thought he would disengage us from these wars, not rattle a saber at an Iran that is three times the size of Iraq and has as its primary weapons supplier and partner Vladimir Putin's Russia," Buchanan added.
Hopefully, the Trump administration will realize the danger of such an openly confrontational policy, and correct course before the verbal sabre-rattling turns into something more serious.