Top U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns to retire

WASHINGTON Fri Jan 18, 2008 9:50pm IST

Nicholas Burns, U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs, is seen in Madrid in this November 30, 2007 file photo. 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. REUTERS/Sergio Perez/Files

Nicholas Burns, U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs, is seen in Madrid in this November 30, 2007 file photo. 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.

Credit: Reuters/Sergio Perez/Files

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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.

Rice is expected to recommend the U.S. ambassador to Russia, William Burns, to replace Burns as under secretary of state for political affairs, said a U.S. official, who asked not to be identified. The two men are not related.

Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Greece as well as an ex-State Department spokesman, has had 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 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. "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.

BURNS KEEPS ROLE ON U.S.-INDIA NUCLEAR DEAL

Burns, 51, has also been the lead U.S. negotiator on an agreement that would give India access to U.S. nuclear fuel and equipment for the first time in 30 years even though it has tested nuclear weapons and refused to join nonproliferation agreements.

Rice said Burns, who will leave in March, will continue to work on the U.S.-India nuclear deal after he retires. The agreement must clear several hurdles, including final approval by the U.S. Congress, before taking effect.

"I am going to continue to support your efforts to secure Israeli-Palestinian peace; to finish this very promising strategic opening with India which will do so much good for our country and our global foreign policy," Burns said.

The Bush administration sees the deal as the centerpiece of a new, strategic relationship between Washington and New Delhi and argues that 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' likely replacement, William Burns, is an experienced U.S. diplomat who has been ambassador to Russia since 2005.

In early 2005 he temporarily served as under secretary of state for political affairs, the job he would now take up if nominated by U.S. President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

From 2001 to 2005, William Burns was the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East. He has also served as ambassador to Jordan as well as on the State Department's policy planning staff and on the White House national security council.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow declined comment on his possible elevation. As ambassador to Moscow, William Burns has helped steer U.S.-Russia relations through their most turbulent period since the end of the Cold War.

Despite often hostile public statements from Russian officials and sharp U.S.-Russian disagreements on missile defense, Kosovo and Iraq, he has worked quietly to calm the atmosphere and keep the lines of communication open.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming, writing by Arshad Mohammed)

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