The Obama administration hopes that Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic groups can reconcile and share power. It wants Iran to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make concessions that placate Iraq’s Arab Sunnis and stabilize the crisis. National reconciliation is the best possible outcome, but it is unlikely.
Working with Iran is a flawed strategy that would alarm Sunnis and alienate U.S. allies in the Gulf. The United States must be steely-eyed. Iraq is a failed state on the verge of collapse. The Obama administration must be careful not to encourage a break-out by the Kurds. At the same time, it needs a plan if Iraq falls apart and Kurdistan declares independence. The U.S. must anticipate events that would compel its recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent sovereign state.
Iraq has no tradition of reconciliation. Iraqis were at loggerheads for 10 months after national elections in 2010. The impasse over government formation finally ended when Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), mediated the Erbil Agreement between Iraqi factions. The post of prime minister was set aside for a Shiite; Maliki got the job. Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, stayed on as president and Usama al-Nujaifi, an Arab Sunni, became Speaker of the Parliament. The deal looked good on paper, but power-sharing was never implemented in practice. Maliki went out of his way to antagonize other groups. He arrested Arab Sunni politicians and contested territories in Iraqi Kurdistan, including Khanaqin near oil-rich Kirkuk.