The chance that the US will take military action against Iran to stop its nuclear program will likely increase after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates steps down in 2011, according to assessments within the Israeli defense establishment.

On Monday, Gates announced plans to leave his job next year. He turns 67 on September 25.

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A Republican holdover from the Bush administration, Gates had agreed to stay on at the request of President Barack Obama. The move was intended to maintain stability at a time of two wars, although Gates has been open about his desire to return to civilian life in his home state of Washington.

In an interview published on Monday, Gates told Foreign Policy magazine that leaving in 2011 makes sense. It would give him time to oversee the major offensive under way in Afghanistan but bow out before the November 2012 presidential election. He has been defense secretary since December 2006.

Gates is viewed in Israel as one of the main opponents of a strike against Iran and has warned in the past that such action would undermine stability in the region and also might not work.

Depending on who replaces him, it is possible that Gates’s departure from the administration would lead to a more viable military threat against Iran if it continues to enrich uranium and pursue nuclear weapons.

Since the US pushed a fourth round of sanctions against Iran through the UN Security Council on June 9, Israel has increased diplomatic efforts to convince the White House that for the sanctions to work, there needs to be a credible military option, to scare Iran into reconsidering its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Israel’s current strategy regarding Iran is to cooperate with the White House, dating back to the beginning of Barack Obama’s term as president in January 2009, when Israel warned against engaging the Iranians but eventually acceded to the new US policy, albeit while demanding that the talks be limited in time.

When the talks failed and Obama moved to the sanctions track, Israel again said it was in favor of sanctions but that they needed to be tough and crack down on the Islamic Republic’s energy sector.

AP contributed to this report.

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