WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who led secret talks with Iran that led to an agreement to curb its nuclear program and who served as the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East as well as ambassador to Russia, will retire in October, officials said on Friday.
The departure of the Arabic-, French- and Russian-speaking official will be felt at the State Department, where he was regarded as the leading career diplomat of his generation and only the second to rise to deputy secretary of state.
There was no immediate word on who might replace Burns. There has been widespread speculation within the department that the undersecretary of state for political affairs, effectively the third-ranking U.S. diplomat, might succeed him.
In a 32-year career, Burns held some of the most sensitive and influential jobs in American diplomacy, including as undersecretary for political affairs from 2008 to 2011, ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008 and assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs from 2001 to 2005.
His most significant role, however, may have been in leading the small team that conducted secret diplomacy with Iran that helped produce the November 24, 2013, agreement under which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
"He has been a skilled advisor, consummate diplomat and inspiration to generations of public servants," said U.S. President Barack Obama, adding that he had asked Burns to delay his retirement earlier this year. "The country is stronger for Bill's service."
Secretary of State John Kerry was also lavish in his praise.
"Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber and contribution as George Kennan and 'Chip' Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends," Kerry said.
Kennan was the intellectual author of the U.S. policy of containing the Soviet Union and Bohlen, another Soviet expert, helped to develop the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War Two. All three men served as U.S. ambassador in Moscow.
While there had been talk that Burns might leave at the end of Obama's first term in January 2013, U.S. officials said that Kerry asked him to stay on for an additional year.
As that deadline approached, Obama invited Burns to lunch and asked him to stay until October 2014.
Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, editing by G Crosse and Will Dunham