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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Financial Times on Wednesday that Israel is unlikely to launch military operations against Iranian nuclear installations this year in a bid to derail the Islamic regime's drive to attain atomic weapons.

"I guess I would say I would be surprised if they did act this year," Gates told the Financial Times.

Upon taking office this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a strategic threat to Israel, and that neutralizing that threat is a top priority of his new administration.

In the interview with the Financial Times, Gates said he believed that Iran would not cross the nuclear threshold, or "red line", this year. He estimated that it would take Tehran between one to three years to reach the point it possessed enough know-how to produce nuclear weapons.

Gates' assessment is at odds with that offered by Israel's defense establishment. Last month, Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told lawmakers that Iran has "crossed the technological threshold" for making a nuclear bomb.

He told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Islamic Republic has developed surface-to-surface missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.

Yadlin said achieving a military nuclear capacity "was mainly dependent on a political decision by Iran."

The Obama administration is intent on resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran via diplomatic channels. Yet, the top American military official in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army Gen. David Petraeus, warned Senate members on Wednesday that Israel may unilaterally launch military strikes against Iran.

"The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it," Petraeus told lawmakers in Washington.