WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged Sunday that in January he sent a memo to the White House outlining the “next steps in our defense planning process” for Iran.

But in a statement issued by his press secretary, Gates said that a New York Times article that revealed the existence of the memo “mischaracterized its purpose and content” when it suggested Gates has despaired that the administration lacked a strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran has refused to abide by international demands to halt enriching uranium, saying it is not developing a nuclear weapon. The Obama administration initially tried to engage Iran but has now spent months pressing for a new round of U.N. Security Council sanctions.

“The memo was not intended as a ‘wake-up call’ or received as such by the President’s national security team,” Gates said. “Rather, it presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process.”

The White House had pushed back hard against the story when it was posted on the Times website Saturday night.

Ben Rhodes, National Security Council spokesman, said: “It is absolutely false that any memo touched off a reassessment of our options. The administration has been planning for all contingencies regarding Iran for many months.”

Various other officials, while acknowledging privately that Gates has sent some sort of memo on Iran, declined to discuss its content but suggested it was not a revelatory moment in the administration’s Iran discussions.

“I think there is less here than meets the eye,” a senior administration official said Sunday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

“We do have a strategy that emerges from the Nuclear Posture Review and will be seen at the review conference” of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in May. “We will strengthen the global nonproliferation regime and expect countries to abide by their obligations.”

Still, the story had received wide attention online and on television, and the administration apparently believed Gates had to address the issue.

“There should be no confusion by our allies and adversaries that the United States is properly and energetically focused on this question and prepared to act across a broad range of contingencies in support of our interests,” Gates said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a speech Sunday at Columbia University that Iran “has been a great focus for years, not months” and “the military option has been on the table and remains on the table.”

Yet, he added: “The diplomatic, the engagement piece, the sanctions piece – all those things, from my perspective, need to be addressed.”

President Obama and other administration figures have vowed Iran will not be allowed to become a nuclear state but have not said what the U.S. would do if Iran gained the ability to produce a weapon.

Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential race, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., seized on news of the memo to charge that the administration lacks “a coherent policy” on Iran.

“We have not done anything that would in any way be viewed effective,” McCain told “Fox News Sunday.” “I didn’t need a secret memo from Mr. Gates to ascertain that.”

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.