WASHINGTON Bill Burns, a career U.S. diplomat and Washington's pointman on dealing with Iran, has been chosen to replace Jim Steinberg as deputy secretary of state, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
A former U.S. ambassador to Russia and Jordan, Burns was chosen by Republican President George W. Bush to serve in his current position as the under secretary of state for political affairs, the No. 3 U.S. diplomat.
In that position, Burns, who speaks Arabic, French and Russian, has had global responsibilities and has been Washington's lead negotiator in the unsuccessful effort to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program.
Former U.S. Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, a Democrat, as well as Republicans Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice praised Burns and congressional aides said he was well respected and should be easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
"Bill is one of our nation's most distinguished diplomats and most talented public servants," Clinton said in an email to State Department employees announcing Steinberg's departure and President Obama's plan to nominate Burns as his successor.
"If confirmed, he will bring incomparable depth and experience to the job, as well as important continuity during a time of change and upheaval in the world," she added.
The U.S. effort to draw Tehran into meaningful talks about its nuclear program have thus far proved fruitless, fueling fears -- which Iran dismisses -- that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration's other major diplomatic initiative to relaunch direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians also is deadlocked, while foreign policy challenges are mounting quickly as political unrest sweeps the Middle East.
Burns holds rank of "career ambassador" -- the highest in the U.S. foreign service -- and has served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East based in Washington, and as acting director of the State Department's policy planning staff.
"I have never seen Bill Burns with his hair on fire about anything," Rice told Reuters in a telephone interview, praising him as even-handed, a quick study and calm under pressure.
Albright, who was secretary of state under former President Bill Clinton, described Burns as "one of the most respected foreign service officers that we have" and said she could not think of any reason why he would not win Senate confirmation.
Senate aides of both parties said Burns was respected by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat, and by the panel's top Republican, Senator Richard Lugar.
The committee votes on his nomination before it can go to the full Senate.
Steinberg, a deputy national security adviser under former President Bill Clinton, has accepted a new job as dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, Clinton said in an e-mail to State Department staff.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)