WASHINGTON — R. Nicholas Burns, the State Department's No. 3 official, who oversees daily policy on high-priority issues from Iran to India and the Balkans, announced Friday that he's retiring for personal reasons.
Burns, a longtime confidant of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was the lead U.S. official in rounding up international support for economic sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. That effort is in trouble because of Chinese and Russian objections to tougher sanctions.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk about the subject, said Burns' decision to end a 26-year Foreign Service career was based only on personal factors and wasn't a result of policy disputes.
President Bush is expected to nominate William Burns, currently the U.S. ambassador to Russia, to replace him as undersecretary of state, the senior official said. The two men aren't related.
The official said the timing of the announcement was dictated by the desire to get replacements for both men confirmed by the Senate before the waning days of Bush's tenure. "They've got to grab the winter while it's still here," he said.
Nicholas Burns' departure — he leaves in March — nonetheless could leave a temporary hole at the top levels of the State Department as the administration struggles with a host of foreign-policy setbacks.
He and Rice will meet their counterparts from five nations in Berlin next week to discuss further UN sanctions against Iran, but the outcome is in doubt.
Bush also is facing a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, a political crisis in Pakistan, a recalcitrant Russia and a declaration of independence from Serbia by Kosovo that could roil the Balkans again.
As the undersecretary of state for policy, Burns was an advocate of diplomatic solutions to confrontations over nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. He was the target of occasional attacks by hawks within and outside the administration, often taking flak whose real target was Rice.
At the announcement Friday morning, Rice praised Burns as a friend whom she's known 18 years and called his departure "bittersweet."
She said he'd agreed to continue work part time on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India, one of Bush's major initiatives toward South Asia. Political opposition in India has stymied the agreement.
Burns called his retirement "just about the most difficult decision I've ever had to make."
William Burns, a highly regarded career diplomat, was the assistant secretary of state for the Near East during Bush's first term. He and his aides at State were among the chief skeptics of invading Iraq.