Neither Israel nor the US has the capabilities to obliterate Iran's atom program, he said, and a military operation against the country's nuclear facilities "would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable. They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert."
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Gates, who staunchly opposed an attack on the Islamic Republic during his term in the Pentagon, made the remarks in a speech in Norfolk, Virginia.
"The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world," he said, and called for harsher sanctions to be imposed on Tehran.
"That's our best chance going forward, to ratchet up the economic pressure and diplomatic isolation to the point where the Iranian leadership concludes that it actually hurts Iranian security and, above all, the security of the regime itself, to continue to pursue nuclear weapons."
Gates said that while Israel's anxiety over a nuclear Iran is understandable, Washington must make it clear to leaders in Jerusalem that "they do not have a blank check to take action that could do grave harm to American vital interests."
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