President Bush will nominate the U.S. ambassador to Russia, William Burns, for the State Department's third-highest job with plans to put him in charge of the administration's efforts to contain Iran, senior U.S. officials told The Associated Press.
He would replace Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who on Friday announced his resignation effective at the end of March.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the nomination announcement, expected later Friday from the White House, had not been made.
Before moving to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 2005, William Burns was the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East. If confirmed by the Senate, he will inherit most of his predecessor's duties, notably the diplomatic push to impose new U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, the officials said.
Those attempts have stalled in the face of Russian and Chinese resistance in the U.N. Security Council and following a recent U.S. intelligence report that concluded Tehran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in late 2003 and has not resumed it. Iran says it never had a weapons program. Nonetheless, the Bush administration has kept up the pressure on Iran to meet international demands to halt uranium enrichment and reprocessing that could make the material needed to construct nuclear weapons.
The consummate diplomat
Nicholas Burns is the most senior in a recent wave of top aides to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice aides who have resigned or retired as Bush's second term nears an end. At least 19 high-level officials have stepped down since December 2006.
Nicholas Burns has been a key player in negotiations over a third U.N. sanctions resolution on Iran, speaking almost daily with his counterparts from the four other permanent Security Council members - Britain, China, France, Russia - as well as Germany.
He plans to accompany Rice to a meeting of foreign ministers from those nations next week in Berlin in a bid to push forward with the resolution.
At a ceremony to announce his retirement after a 26-year foreign service career, Rice paid tribute to a man she called a friend she has known for 18 years.
"He has been the consummate diplomat serving on behalf of the United States in some of our most difficult circumstances, working on some of most difficult issues," Rice said.
Aside from Iran, those issues have included negotiating a controversial civilian nuclear deal with India and dealing with the complicated Balkans, particularly the issue of the Serbian entity of Kosovo, which intends to soon declare independence in a move forcefully opposed by Serbia and its ally Russia.
Rice said that, after leaving, Burns had agreed to continue "to work on the India file, particularly because we would like to push the U.S. civil nuclear agreement to conclusion."
William Burns, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and former ambassador to Jordan, joined the foreign service in 1982 and has worked in senior policy planning posts at the State Department as well as at the National Security Council. He took over the Russia portfolio at the NSC during the waning years of the Cold War, during the administration of the first President Bush.
Nicholas Burns, 51, who also has served as the State Department spokesman, will be taking a job in the private sector, officials said, discounting speculation that he has aspirations for elected office in his home state of Massachusetts.
Burns said he was leaving because 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."
Three other top diplomats have left under heavy criticism for Iraq-related issues: the head of the department's Overseas Building Operations, Charles Williams, Inspector General Howard Krongard, and Diplomatic Security chief Richard Griffin.
Another, Randall Tobias, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, resigned after being implicated in a Washington call-girl scandal.