Their arrival in Erbil must have generated an uncomfortable sensation of déjà vu. Roughly two months after convening a show of force in the Kurds' autonomous capital, the political opponents of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki once again found themselves deep in their end game theories. President Jalal Talabani and his Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were joined by the usual crowd: al-Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi, parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani and the Sadr Movement's Muqteda Al Sadr.
The odds of them reconvening over the same terms also increased when Talabani dismissed the possibility of submitting a no-confidence vote to parliament.
Although the concept of a national dialogue is calculated to avoid the possibility of civil war or another messy election, Talabani's decision will surely embolden al-Maliki's attempt to remain in power without sacrificing any authority to Sunni, Kurdish or various Shiite parties. Each believes that al-Maliki is steering the country towards a new dictatorship - and each has been personally wronged by the "dictator" - but their failure to reach an actionable consensus is playing into al-Maliki's short-term advantage. Of the three oppositional parties, the Sunni-affiliated Iraqiya actively supports the election of a new premier (either selected by a national conference or election) in response to its first place finish in 2010's parliamentary. Iraqiya spent the first quarter of 2011 organizing a partial boycott against al-Maliki's cabinet before falling back to regroup.
Allawi himself realizes the danger of another election but essentially demands a do-over if al-Maliki cannot be persuaded to implement the Erbil Agreement, which has yet to resolve their parties' power-sharing disputes.
Talabani has yet to reach this point despite al-Maliki's own friction with the Kurds (Barzani includes himself amongst those Iraqis that view the Prime Minister as a dictator). He would prefer to contain the political crisis and exert a measure of control over its eventual outcome, a sensible policy considering the alternative of a hostile power struggle with al-Maliki. A recent statement on Talabani's website announced that he's, "firmly convinced of the seriousness of the current circumstances which entail that we speed up efforts to sit on the table of brotherly and constructive dialogue."
However Tehran is supposedly playing a factor in his decision-making, further complicating efforts to genuinely bridge Iraq's political divisions. General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran's Al-Quds Force, is also suspected of urging Tehran's Shiite contacts to enter a dialogue with the premier.
Whether this influence has reached al-Sadr remains open to debate (his independence is generally underestimated by Western media), but the prominent cleric also continues to sit on Baghdad's fence. Multiple deadlines to accept the Erbil Agreement have passed without a concrete response, adding to the evidence that al-Maliki's opponents don't want to chance another election or assume the blame for new violence. One Sadrist lawmaker added that the cleric is facing internal Shiite pressure to keep al-Maliki: "There is a problem because the downfall of al-Maliki would create rifts among Shiites." The Sadrist politician was referring to a recent letter from Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, who has lived in Iran and offered religious guidance to al-Sadr.
Ideally, al-Sadr seeks to leverage his parliamentary bloc as a means of control over al-Maliki and avoid confrontation with his own base. How long he can hold onto this strategy, though, is a separate issue; in a semi-related development, al-Sadr's old stomping grounds of Basra continues to follow Iraq's other drives toward regional autonomy. Sabah Albazzouni, the head of the Basra Provincial Council, recently told Al-Hayat that his governorate "wants to create a southern province due to the severe political crisis that the country has been facing since the end of last year."
The combined positions of Iraq's leaders indicate the obvious: the prospect of an amicable resolution lurks far in the distance. With the opposition still uncommitted to the nuclear option of a no-confidence vote, al-Maliki is motivated to stall a national dialogue for long as possible and accept this condition as a last resort to save his authority. This political stalemate is then compounded by the interference of Iran and America, who perversely aligned behind al-Maliki after the U.S. withdrawal in order to safeguard their private interests. Washington not only continues to unconditionally support al-Maliki over Iraqiya and the Kurds, but also remains publicly disconnected from Iraq's political environment. Obama personally offended Allawi and al-Mutlaq when he hosted al-Maliki in December 2011. Later in April, Barzani criticized the stagnant state of U.S. policy before boarding a plane to Washington.
"During the most recent political standoff, the United States remained the indispensable honest broker and the only one trusted by, and in regular communication with, all of the leading blocs," Tony Blinken, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, said after Barzani visited his office. "Much of this engagement takes place quietly, unadvertised. But just because you don't see it and we don' say it, doesn't mean it's not happening."
Given that no part of the situation has changed, the White House's transparent propaganda bodes ill for the future of Iraq. Much like al-Maliki, the Obama administration continues to base U.S. policy on the perpetuation of Iraq's status quo. The upshot is that al-Maliki's opponents cannot expect a third party to objectively mediate Iraq's crisis, leaving them to ultimately move against al-Maliki in one formation or another.