(CN) – More chaos at its doorstep, heightened risk of attacks by Islamic terrorists, more fraying of relations with the United States, more exposure of its weakness on the international stage: For Europe, the escalating conflict between the U.S. and Iran poses a range of dangers.
The assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone last week has left European leaders scrambling to keep both sides from going to war and also seeking to keep alive a nuclear deal with Iran that serves as a centerpiece to Europe's interests in the Middle East.
"It is a package of problems” for Europe, said Gordon Friedrichs, a political scientist at the University of Heidelberg, in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Most immediately, the conflict puts at risk European troops stationed in Iraq to train and assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting remnants of the Islamic State.
Several European countries – including Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands – have soldiers in Iraq. Missile strikes on American bases on Wednesday highlighted the risk they face and those troops are being moved out of danger. European officials said no soldiers were wounded in Wednesday's missile strikes.
Besides the danger to troops, Europe faces an increased risk of attacks on European soil by Islamic terrorists or even by Iran and its allies. There are numerous American military bases throughout Europe and they could become targets if the conflict worsens.
“Europe is fully exposed to this, including things that could happen on European territory,” Ian Lesser, the head of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank, said in a telephone interview.
“Europe faces on its periphery not just conflict but durable chaos,” he said.
Terrorism is a top concern in Europe, which suffered a series of terrorist attacks after the Islamic State group emerged in 2014. There is fear that this conflict with Iran could force the withdrawal of European and American troops from Iraq, thereby allowing the Islamic State to regroup and target Europe with new attacks.
This possibility grew more real after Iraq's parliament on Sunday backed a proposal to force foreign troops to leave the country. Many Iraqis are angry that the U.S. assassinated Soleimani and a top militia leader on Iraqi soil, and they worry that Iraq will be dragged into another war by the Americans.
Besides the risk of terrorist attacks, the meltdown in the Middle East may provide new fuel to far-right politicians in Europe who are gaining in popularity throughout the continent by portraying Middle Eastern and African immigrants as potential terrorists. These far-right politicians are upending European politics and raising concerns they could weaken the European Union.
“This could become a political debate domestically again,” Friedrichs said. Terrorism could “emerge as a pressing issue” used by far-right parties like the Alternative for Germany, he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump's aggressiveness against Iran also does more damage to the deteriorating relationship between Europe and the U.S.
“A lot of the questions, concerns, that Europeans have had about American policy-making in recent years are really underlined in this crisis,” Lesser said. “It underscores for Europe this concern over American unilateralism in areas of European interest.”