First, the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is pursuing a policy of constructive engagement with the world — which is what Iranians elected him for in 2013. In Iran’s complicated political system, the executive and legislative branches are elected by popular vote, though the Guardian Council’s vetting of candidates makes the elections process not entirely free.
Within this political system, making a decision to engage in war is not an easy task. Therefore, while some Saudi leaders may beat the drums of escalation, the possibility of outright war depends on factors such as whether there is political will for such action and how the two countries choose to handle the crisis in their relations. In sum, engaging in war is not something that can be done by one side alone.
Moreover, Iran’s government has no incentive to increase tensions, as evidenced by the condemnation of the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by the triangle of power in Iranian foreign policy, meaning Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. In a goodwill effort, Iran has also announced that it will continue to send pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the hajj this year. Thus, if Saudi Arabia intends to initiate war, the Iranian public — seeing themselves as victims of a violation — will mobilize, and also gain the sympathy of the international community.
Second, the majority of Iran’s current leaders were involved in the destructive war with Iraq and are fully aware of its costs. Rouhani held several military positions during the conflict, while Zarif and his deputies also remember the hardships of that era in their capacity as diplomats. Khamenei, who was president at that time, also served as chairman of the Supreme Defense Council, while Rafsanjani served as the de facto commander-in-chief of the Iranian military.
Even Iran’s parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, served as a commander with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Larijani’s brothers, including incumbent judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani, were also involved in the conflict. Many other influential Iranian figures, including a great number of parliamentarians and Friday prayer leaders, also have bitter memories of war, some of them as war veterans. Moreover, although the IRGC at times seems to favor showdowns — such as in the cases of the recent detention of US sailors or its surveillance of the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman in the Persian Gulf — it is not empowered to take arbitrary actions.
Third, the very nature of the current crisis makes war unlikely. According to Charles Hermann, a renowned analyst of issues related to US foreign policy, crisis management and decision-making, what defines a crisis are the three elements of threat, time and surprise. Whether the situation threatens the vital interests of a state allows only a short time for decision-making, and whether it occurs as a surprise to policymakers must all be considered.