New York Times: William J. Burns, a career diplomat who led the Obama administration’s back-channel negotiations with Iran, plans to step down as the State Department’s second-ranking official in October, administration officials said on Friday.
The New York Times
By Michael R. Gordon
WASHINGTON — William J. Burns, a career diplomat who led the Obama administration’s back-channel negotiations with Iran, plans to step down as the State Department’s second-ranking official in October, administration officials said on Friday.
Mr. Burns, the deputy secretary of state, has been a trusted diplomat in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He has twice delayed his retirement, most recently at the request of President Obama.
Mr. Obama joined Secretary of State John Kerry and several of Mr. Kerry’s predecessors in praising Mr. Burns’s record.
“Since I met Bill in Moscow in 2005, I have admired his skill and precision,” Mr. Obama said in a statement, adding that he had “relied on him for countless delicate tasks — and each one he has handled with that same skill and precision.”
Mr. Kerry compared Mr. Burns to George F. Kennan and Charles E. Bohlen, and said he “has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.”
Mr. Burns’s decision to delay his departure until October raises the possibility that he may again play a role on Iran policy should formal negotiations fail to produce a comprehensive agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program by their July deadline.
A successor to Mr. Burns has yet to be chosen. But the candidates are likely to include Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and Wendy R. Sherman, the under secretary of state who is leading the American team in the formal negotiations with Iran.
Other possible candidates include Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a career Foreign Service officer who serves as the State Department counselor; Michele Flournoy, a former senior official at the Pentagon; and R. Nicholas Burns, a former ranking State Department official who is no relation to William Burns.
During his 32-year career, William Burns, 58, has served as the American ambassador in Moscow and in Amman, Jordan. He took up his post in Jordan in 1998, before the death of King Hussein and the transition of power to his son, King Abdullah.
But much of Mr. Burns’s career has been spent at senior levels of the State Department in Washington.
James A. Baker III, who served as secretary of state for the elder President George Bush, recalled that the soft-spoken Mr. Burns was one of his most effective aides.
“He was the most understated of all of them, but what he said made extraordinary good sense,” Mr. Baker said.
When Colin Powell was secretary of state during the administration of George W. Bush, he asked Mr. Burns, who was then the assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, to prepare a memo outlining the risks of invading Iraq.
“We were all supporting the president’s decision,” Mr. Powell said, referring to Mr. Bush’s decision to use force. “But we felt that we had an obligation to point out some of the problems one might run into.”
David D. Pearce, who worked for Mr. Burns at the time and is now the ambassador to Greece, drafted much of the memo. Ryan C. Crocker, who later served as ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, also helped prepare the document. Called the “Perfect Storm,” it highlighted the risk that an American intervention might cause sectarian tensions, but it had little effect on Mr. Bush’s calculations.
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Mr. Burns held the State Department’s third-highest policy post during the early years of the Obama administration. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state at the time, picked Mr. Burns to be deputy secretary. He is only the second career Foreign Service officer to hold the job, and has had influence over top State Department appointments.
“He was a steady hand but also a very effective firefighter,” Mrs. Clinton said in an interview.
It was Mr. Burns who accompanied the bodies of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on a C-17 flight to Washington from Ramstein Air Base in Germany after the attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya. More recently, Mr. Burns led the American team in secret talks with Iran that set the stage for the interim agreement that temporarily froze much of Iran’s nuclear program.
“When we decided we were going to pursue it, we began to set it up for Bill to go,” Mrs. Clinton said of the secret negotiations.
In March 2013, Mr. Burns and a small group of American officials flew in an unmarked government plane to Oman, where they met with Iranian officials in a secluded seaside location outside Muscat, the capital.
The message Mr. Burns delivered to his Iranian counterparts was that the United States was prepared to explore an agreement allowing Iran to maintain a civil nuclear program that included the ability to enrich uranium if Tehran accepted limits to preclude that program from being used to develop nuclear weapons.
In November, when Mr. Kerry went to Geneva for formal talks between six world powers and Iran on the nuclear issue, Mr. Burns traveled there separately and kept his back channel with Iran open.
During delicate moments in the talks, Mr. Burns and Jacob J. Sullivan, a former aide to Mrs. Clinton who is now the national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., used a back entrance to meet with Mr. Kerry and Ms. Sherman in the secretary’s hotel suite.
The talks led to an interim agreement that temporarily froze much of Iran’s nuclear program, but the prospects for a more lasting agreement are uncertain, and Mr. Burns may yet have a role to play.