U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates defended Israel's reputed nuclear program on Saturday, saying Israel did not seek to destroy its neighbors or support terrorism, unlike Iran.

Asked at an international security conference in Bahrain on Saturday whether he thought Israel's nuclear program posed a threat to the region, Gates replied: "No, I do not."

The statement was greeted by laughter from a room filled with government officials from Middle Eastern countries.

Israel is widely assumed to have the region's only atomic arsenal, but refuses to confirm or deny it. Washington has long avoided pressing Israel to go public with its capabilities.

Gates did not specifically mention Israel's nuclear weapons or arsenal, but responded to questions about its "nuclear program" -- giving the Pentagon chief room to dismiss any suggestion that he implicitly confirmed the existence of nuclear weapons in Israel.

He dismissed the allegation that the United States applied a double standard on the nuclear issue by supporting Israel while calling for Iran to abandon its enrichment activities, which Tehran says are for peaceful purposes.

"Israel is not training terrorists to subvert its neighbours. It has not shipped weapons into a place like Iraq to kill thousands of innocent civilians covertly," Gates said.

"It has not threatened to destroy any of its neighbours. It is not trying to destabilise the government of Lebanon.

"So I think there are significant differences in terms of both the history and the behaviour of the Iranian and Israeli governments. I understand there is a difference of view on that," he said.

Iran denies U.S. allegations that it has armed, trained and funded Shi'ite militias in Iraq, blaming the violence in Iraq on the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

A year ago, Gates first angered Israelis during testimony to the U.S. Congress by including Israel in a list of nuclear-armed countries in the regions around Iran to explain why Tehran might have sought the means to build an atomic bomb. He has not publicly discussed it since.

Iran accuses U.S. of spying on nuclear weapons program Iran has sent a protest letter to the United States accusing it of spying on the Islamic state's nuclear activities, the official IRNA news reported on Saturday, citing the country's foreign minister.

The letter, submitted to the Swiss embassy in Tehran which handles U.S. interests in the country, was in reaction to the U.S. intelligence report published last Monday, which concluded that Iran had actually stopped atomic weapons development in 2003.

"The ministry submitted a letter to the Swiss embassy in Tehran ... demanding explanations over America's espionage on Iran's nuclear case," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was quoted as saying by IRNA.

Gates: Gulf States must demand Iran come clean on nuclear program Persian Gulf nations must demand that Iran come clean about its past nuclear ambitions and openly vow to not develop such weapons in the future, Gates said Saturday.

In a broad call to diplomatic arms, Gates exhorted leaders from the Gulf to band together to force Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program and to help the fragile Iraqi government.

"Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents - Christians, Jews and Muslims alike," Gates said in a keynote address at the Manama Conference in Bahrain. "There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing."

And in a sarcastic riff, he goaded Iran to acknowledge its bad behavior - from arming terrorists in Iraq to its support for militant organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Asked if the United States would be willing to sit down and talk with Iran, Gates said the behavior of the "new leadership of Iran has not given one confidence that a dialogue would be productive."

Noting that Iran embraced the recent U.S. intelligence report, Gates said Iran should accept that all other intelligence conclusions about its conduct are true. When the report came out earlier this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed it as a declaration of victory for his country.

"In reality, you cannot pick and choose only the conclusions you like of this National Intelligence Estimate," Gates said. "Since that government now acknowledges the quality of American intelligence assessments, I assume that it also will embrace as valid American intelligence assessments of its funding and training of militia groups in Iraq."

Gates said Iran should also acknowledge it delivers weapons to terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, supports terror groups and continues to develop ballistic missiles that could be used to carry weapons of mass destruction.

Gates' rebukes didn't reach any Iranian ears directly, since Iran decided at the last moment not to attend the gathering, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

While Gates used the intelligence estimate as a hammer against Iran here, the report has bruised the Bush administration. The findings were in stark contrast to a 2005 estimate that said Tehran was continuing its weapons development.

And it flies in the face of U.S. President George W. Bush's rhetoric on Iran, such as when he said in October that people interested in avoiding World War III should be working to prevent Iran from having the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon.

The administration has acknowledged that the report may make it harder to build international support to persuade Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program.

Gates' speech followed efforts by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to press for new sanctions against Iran.

Rice asserted Friday in Brussels, Belgium, that Washington would continue pressing for new sanctions against Iran while holding talks to convince Tehran to come clean about its nuclear program.

But Russia ignored her calls to punish Iran. Despite continued support from NATO and other European allies, Rice was unable to convince Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that fresh sanctions were urgently needed.

Rice said her talks with Lavrov were an extension of other conversations we have had, suggesting the two didn't see eye to eye.

Gates, in his speech, pressed Gulf nations to back sanctions to force Iran to suspend enrichment, and to demand that Iran openly affirm that it does not intend to develop nuclear weapons in the future.

"In a complex region where partnerships do not come easy," Gates said the countries need to pull together and develop regional air and missile defense systems.

Gates ended his speech with a grim warning against underestimating the United States.

"Some countries," he said, may believe our resolve has been corroded by the challenges we face at home and abroad. This would be a grave misconception."

"Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy and the former Soviet Union all made that miscalculation," Gates said. "All paid the price. All are on the ash heap of history."

Gates' stop in Bahrain is the last stop on a frenetic, weeklong tour of the region, which included meetings with military commanders on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bolton: U.S. intelligence report influenced by politics U.S. intelligence services were seeking to influence political policy-making with their assessment Iran had halted its nuclear arms program in 2003, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said.

Der Spiegel magazine quoted Bolton on Saturday as saying the aim of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), contradicting his and President George W. Bush's own oft-stated position, was not to provide the latest intelligence on Iran.

"This is politics disguised as intelligence," Bolton was quoted as saying in an article appearing in next week's edition.

Bolton described the NIE, released on Monday, as a "quasi-putsch" by the agencies, Der Spiegel said.

Bolton has long criticized Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for refusing to declare that there was hard evidence Tehran was trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Earlier this year Bolton said: "Regime change or the use of force are the only available options to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability, if they want it."