Rick Santorum dredges up all the stale tropes about Iran that helped lose him his last Senate election:

Rational actors don’t call for the destruction of other states, call them cancers or preach radical theologies. Rational actors don’t send 100,000 children out onto the battlefield as human mine sweepers, as the Iranians did during their long war with Iraq. Rational actors do not develop nuclear capability, hide it from inspectors and pretend it’s for electrical generation. (Especially those sitting atop hundreds of years’ worth of oil and natural gas.) They are essentially irrational actors, and very wicked ones to boot.

There are a few things to sort out here. First, states that have oil and gas reserves might very well pursue nuclear energy for generating electricity to allow them to have more oil and gas for export. Governments that rely on these exports for revenue would want to be able to use as much of it as possible to sell. A state would be even more likely to do this if those reserves are gradually dwindling. This may or may not be an energy policy Santorum likes, but that’s irrelevant. There’s nothing irrational about it.

The biggest problem with Santorum’s discussion of rationality is that he pretends not to know what people mean when they say that Iran’s leaders are rational actors. He wants readers to conclude that recognizing the regime’s rationality means approving its conduct, which is simply wrong. We’re referring here to rationality defined as self-interest: Iran’s leaders will seek to act in ways that make them more secure. They are not going to act in ways that will ensure their own destruction. It assumes that they are more interested in survival than destroying themselves, which is usually a good assumption where all kinds of regimes are concerned.

When a country is invaded by a hostile force and its main advantage is numbers, a government may resort to horrible tactics that exploit that advantage to stave off defeat. This is what the Iranian government did during its long and bloody war with Iraq. Nations often make extraordinary, terrifying sacrifices in defensive wars against an invading aggressor. Under most other circumstances, Santorum would probably acknowledge this not as proof of a regime’s irrationality but of its desire to live.

Threatening and demonizing other states are outrageous things to do, but while this is not acceptable or desirable behavior it is not irrational in the way that Santorum means it. Part of this is calculated vilification of foreign enemies for purposes of consolidating control at home, part of it is intended to appeal to an international audience, part of it is bluster, and part of it is a genuine expression of hostility. Regimes can be self-interested and rational in a narrow, self-preserving sense while doing all of these things.

Santorum continues:

If that ultimatum is not met, the U.S. must engage Prime Minister Netanyahu and the people of Israel in an effort to make sure that, if the Iranians do not tear down those facilities, we will tear them down ourselves.

Absurdly, Santorum protests in the next sentence that this “is not bellicosity and warmongering,” but that is exactly what it is. Santorum wants the U.S. to issue an ultimatum to Iran that it must do something that it is not going to do under threat of foreign attack. Iran is not going to dismantle its nuclear program because the U.S. threatens it with attack, and so Santorum is effectively demanding that the U.S. “tear down” Iran’s nuclear facilities with military action. This is the very heart of warmongering, including the dishonest pretense that no warmongering is going on.