The United States needs to tell Israel that it does not “have a blank check to take action that could do grave harm to American vital interests,” according to former US defense secretary Robert Gates.

Gates, who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama from 2006 through 2011, was quoted by the Virginian-Pilot as warning against a military strike on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities, saying it could “prove catastrophic.”

Neither the United States nor Israel is capable of totally destroying Iran’s nuclear program, Gates said, and any strike would ultimately backfire.

“Such an attack would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable,” he said. “They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert.”

Speaking at a forum in Norfolk, Virginia on Wednesday, Gates added, “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.”

Gates, who served in the Central Intelligence Agency for 26 years before becoming secretary of defense, suggested letting the United Nations attempt to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued at the United Nations General Assembly in New York for the international community — and especially the United States — to warn Iran against passing a “red line” in nuclear enrichment beyond which military measures would be taken. The Obama administration has firmly rejected the idea of red lines, but has said it will stop Iran attaining nuclear weapons.

Last year, shortly before he stepped down as secretary of defense, Gates harshly criticized Netanyahu’s government and called Israel an ungrateful ally of the United States.