Top U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns to retire
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nicholas Burns, a leading American policymaker on Iran and India, has decided to retire as the No. 3 U.S. diplomat for personal reasons, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday.
The White House quickly proposed U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns to replace him as undersecretary of state for political affairs, a coveted assignment typically filled by a career diplomat. The appointment must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The two men are not related.
U.S. officials said the State Department was expected to put forward John Beyrle, the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, to head the U.S. Embassy in Moscow but that the White House had made no decision.
"This is a very bittersweet time for us because Nick Burns had decided that it is time for him to retire," Rice told reporters as she announced his departure. "He has decided that it's the right moment to go back to family concerns."
Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Greece as well as a former State Department spokesman, has played a major role in negotiating the two U.N. Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
The foreign ministers of Germany and the five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- will meet in Berlin on Tuesday to discuss a third sanctions resolution.
"He's going to continue to sprint until he leaves in March," Rice said of Burns, 51. "Next week we will go together to Berlin to have a little meeting on the way forward on Iran -- the P5+1. And so we have a lot of work to do."
The United States believes Iran aims to acquire nuclear weapons and the U.N. sanctions are designed to force Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, which can produce fuel for nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants.
Iran says its program is for power generation.
KEEPS ROLE ON U.S.-INDIA NUCLEAR DEAL
Burns has also been the lead negotiator on a proposed deal to give India access to U.S. nuclear equipment and fuel for the first time in 30 years even though it has tested nuclear weapons and refused to join nonproliferation agreements.
Rice said Burns would continue to work on the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement after he retired. The pact must clear several hurdles, including final approval by the U.S. Congress, before taking effect.
The Bush administration sees the deal as the centerpiece of a new, strategic relationship between Washington and New Delhi and argues it will help India meet its soaring energy needs and provide business opportunities for U.S. companies.
The agreement is controversial in India, where it is opposed by the communist allies of the Congress Party-led government, who believe it would infringe on Indian sovereignty.
It has also been criticized by Western nonproliferation experts who fear it will undercut efforts to stop the spread of nuclear arms.
Burns said leaving was "just about the most difficult decision" he had ever made, but added, "It's time for me to meet my obligations to my wife and three daughters and it's time to pursue other ventures outside the government."
His likely replacement, William Burns, is an experienced U.S. diplomat who has been ambassador to Russia since 2005.
In early 2005, he served temporarily as undersecretary of state for political affairs, the job he would take up if confirmed by the Senate. A State Department spokesman said he would inherit the Iran portfolio if he was confirmed.
From 2001 to 2005, William Burns was the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East. He also served as ambassador to Jordan as well as on the State Department's policy planning staff and the White House National Security Council.
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Peter Cooney)