WASHINGTON — The second-highest ranking American diplomat is retiring this fall after a 32-year career in the foreign service that included stints as US ambassador to Russia and Jordan, top Middle East hand and leader of a team that held secret talks with Iran, US officials said Friday.
US Deputy Secretary of State William (Bill) Burns will step down in October, having several times delayed retirement at the request of US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Burns is just the second career diplomat to hold the No. 2 job at the State Department. In 2012, he was tasked with leading a small team of US officials in covert discussions with Iran that resulted in the current negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.
“I have relied on him for candid advice and sensitive diplomatic missions,” Obama said Friday of Burns in a statement released by the White House. “He has been a skilled adviser, consummate diplomat, and inspiration to generations of public servants.”
Kerry, for his part, hailed Burns for his “enormous impact and influence in untold ways and myriad issues.”
“It’s not just where he’s served, it’s who he is and what he’s done,” Kerry said. “This guy is the real deal.”
Kerry said Burns, who had agreed to put his retirement on hold when Kerry took up his post in 2013, had had an “enormous impact and influence in untold ways.”
Burns, who has worked under 10 secretaries of state, was “a diplomat’s diplomat, with this terrifically rare mix of strategic vision and operational skill,” Kerry said in a statement.
“He really is the gold standard for quiet, head-down, get-it-done diplomacy.”
Burns joined the foreign service in 1982 and quickly rose within its ranks. In addition to the deputy post and his ambassadorial positions, he also served as undersecretary of state for political affairs, the State Department’s No. 3 post, and director of policy planning.
One of America’s longest serving, most experienced and highest-ranking diplomats, Burns led secret talks with Iran in recent years. It emerged late last year that the low-profile Burns, and then senator Kerry, had helped set up back channel talks from 2011 between the Obama administration and Tehran, even though the two countries do not have diplomatic ties.
The secret talks helped kick-start the nuclear negotiations now playing out in Vienna between six world powers and Iran.