For a Europe With Little Leverage, Dangers Abound in US-Iran Conflict

Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades in Tehran on Monday. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

(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.

President Donald Trump walks outside the White House on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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.”

Although European leaders sounded restrained in reaction to the killing of Soleimani, many European leaders are angry at Trump for first dropping out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and now escalating tensions with Iran.

“The Trump administration has recklessly ignored the concerns of allies,” Friedrichs said. “This is another example of how the Trump administration treats allies and this makes Europeans uneasy about their current cooperation with the U.S.”

Trump’s hawkish White House is pursuing a so-called “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran. Top advisers to Trump, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, want to topple Iran’s government.

European leaders, meanwhile, have favored easing tensions with Iran. In 2015, the EU played a key role in a deal with Iran backed by then-U.S. President Barack Obama designed to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for an easing of international sanctions. But Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reignited tensions.

“The Europeans have a completely different understanding of how to engage and confront Iran,” Friedrichs said. “I don’t think there is much common ground right now” between the U.S. and EU.

He said it was highly unlikely that Europe would back Trump’s aggressive tactics against Iran.

“I also don’t think the Europeans have domestic support for any strategy close to Trump’s,” Friedrichs said.

For now, the main aim for Europeans is to revive the nuclear deal, which is at risk of collapsing altogether after Soleimani’s assassination and a declaration by Iran that it would no longer abide by restrictions to uranium enrichment set out by the deal.

“The EU will want to keep the deal alive,” Lesser said.

Still, despite the differences between the U.S. and Europe over the nuclear deal, Lesser said the two sides are opposed to Iran’s aggressive policies in the Middle East. Iran is blamed for backing terrorist and rebel organizations throughout the Middle East in a drive to expand its influence in the region.

Lesser said Europeans also viewed Soleimani as a threat and a key figure behind Iran’s backing of terrorist groups. Soleimani was the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, which conducts operations outside Iran’s borders, making it a key player in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

“On some of these issues, the EU has been as hawkish as the U.S.,” Lesser said. “I don’t think there is a lot of daylight between the U.S. and Europe on Iran policy, setting aside the nuclear deal.”

Because Europe is so much closer to the Middle East than the U.S., it also has a lot more reason to fear the conflict intensifying, Lesser said.

“Above all they don’t want this to spin out of control,” he said. “They do not want to see further escalation of this situation even if they share a lot of the complaints.”

But there is little the Europeans can do to make sure things work out the way they want them to, experts say.

“For all the European stakes, they don’t have a lot of leverage,” Lesser said.

“I think the diplomatic leverage of the European countries has to a certain extent diminished under the Trump administration, mostly because the Trump administration doesn’t believe in talks with Iran,” Friedrichs said. “I think Europe is in a really weak position.”

Europe also does not have a lot of influence over Iran, in part because an initiative to bypass American sanctions and allow European businesses to conduct limited trade with Iran on humanitarian grounds was ineffective. The initiative failed largely because European companies and banks were unwilling to risk angering the U.S.

“Iranians believed and trusted the EU in the past,” Friedrichs said. “This has pretty much evaporated.”
Europe also is constrained because of its military reliance on the U.S. in the Middle East and the lack of a comprehensive policy in the region.

Friedrichs said Europeans will be hesitant in backing the U.S. in its conflict with Iran.

“As of now, I don’t think Europeans think it wise to come up with large-scale military support of the U.S.,” he said.

But he added that Europe’s position will depend on how the conflict evolves. “As of now, the European Union cannot do much except to offer their perspective,” Friedrichs said.

Lesser said Europeans may be more willing to support a U.S. initiative in the region to provide military protection to ships, particularly oil tankers, passing through the Persian Gulf.

“That is where there could be unity,” Lesser said.

Friedrichs said the dilemmas Europe now faces are the result of the EU failing to develop a Middle East strategy.

“The European Union lacks a coherent Middle East strategy and a coherent Iran strategy,” he said, adding that is partly due to Europe’s fears of making mistakes in the region.

Friedrichs said Europe is now home to many refugees and immigrants from the Middle East who have fled conflict and poverty and that the EU “needs to consider this domestic constituent when formulating a foreign policy strategy.”

“So it is hard to come up with a strategy without alienating Middle Eastern populations,” he said.

“It has slept on certain issues, it has lost sight of certain pressing issues,” he said about the EU. “They have engaged in a reactionary foreign policy rather than a proactive foreign policy.”

For now, the hope in Europe is that war is averted, Trump is voted out of office in November and a Democratic president is willing to revive the pivotal nuclear deal.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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