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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday that the current American administration as well as those that follow it will exercise extreme caution before launching a pre-emptive military strike against an enemy state.

When asked about the Bush administration's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the defense secretary told the U.S. public television station PBS that the lesson drawn in Washington was that the rationale for any future American offensive will have to meet stricter criteria.

"I think one of the biggest lessons learned in this is, if you are going to contemplate preempting an attack, you had better be very confident of the intelligence that you have," Gates told PBS.

"I think that the lessons learned with the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq] and some of the other things that happened will make any future president very very cautious about launching that kind of conflict or relying on intelligence."

Gates said that any future strike will first and foremost be predicated on the threat level to the continental U.S.

"[All future presidents are] going to ask a lot of very hard questions, and I think that hurdle is much higher today than it was 6 or 7 years ago," Gates told PBS.

The defense secretary's comments come on the heels of conflicting U.S. intelligence assessments of Iran's nuclear capabilities.

In testimony before Congress on Tuesday, the officials - Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples - said Iran does not have any highly enriched uranium, the fuel used to power a nuclear warhead.

The officials also said recent Iranian missile tests were not directly related to its nuclear activities. They said the two programs were believed to be on separate development tracks.

Blair had been asked to clarify recent conflicting statements from defense officials on Iran's nuclear program.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said in a televised interview last week that the U.S. believes Iran has obtained enough nuclear material to make a bomb.

But Gates said hours later that Iran was in fact not close to having a nuclear weapon, which gives the United States and others time to try to persuade Tehran to abandon its suspected atomic arms program.

"They're not close to a stockpile, they're not close to a weapon at this point, and so there is some time," Gates said on NBC television's "Meet The Press."

"We assess now that Iran does not have any highly enriched uranium," Blair said. "We assess that Iran has not yet made that decision," to convert the low-enriched uranium it is making to the weapons-grade material.