Nicholas Burns, Washington's key negotiator on the India-US nuclear deal agreement will continue to work towards pushing the deal "to conclusion if possible" even after he quits the state department in March to probably pursue a new career in the private sector.
Announcing Burns' surprise resignation due to "family concerns", US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday the third ranking top career diploma will keep a role in working on the deal after he "retires".
"I've asked Nick also that after he retires, he will spend some time continuing to work on the India file, particularly because we would like to push the US Civil Nuclear Agreement to conclusion if possible, and Nick has agreed to continue that work and thank you, Nick, for that," she said.
Burns, 51, too on his part promised, "to finish this very promising strategic opening with India which will do so much good for our country and our global foreign policy."
Later State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said no timeline had been set for Burns' new role. "I would expect it to continue as long as it's in an interest of the Secretary to have Nick doing that. And Nick is able to do it with whatever comes next in his professional life," he said.
The implementing 123 agreement that Burns negotiated with Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon last July has to be approved by the US Congress before the landmark deal takes effect. New Delhi also has to wrap up a safeguards pact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) before approaching the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for a change in its guidelines to permit global civil nuclear commerce with India.
Asked if Burns would be designated 'a special envoy', McCormack said he didn 't "know that we've settled on a title yet, but he would remain focused on that particular issue. I think he's uniquely positioned given his role in negotiating it."
"Oh, I'm sure. You know, Nick is one of these guys that manages to find 27 hours in the day, you know, " he quipped when asked if Burns is committed to putting in an adequate amount of time on the deal.
Asked to spell out the basis on which Burns would be staying on McCormack said: "There are special provisions within the law that allow people for discrete periods of-or limited periods of time, not necessarily measured by the calendar year but by the number of days you spend doing something, that allow people who are not part of the government to work on specific functions."
Rice is expected to recommend US Ambassador to Russia William Burns to replace him as under secretary of state for political affairs. He was previously assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. The two men are not related.
A former spokesman of the state department, Burns played a key role in pushing the Henry Hyde Act, the enabling US law through the Congress in 2006. He played an equally crucial role in hammering out the implementing 123 Agreement with India last year.
Burns often described the nuclear deal as the centrepiece of a new strategic partnersip with India. "As we Americans consider our future role in the world, the rise of a democratic and increasingly powerful India represents a singularly positive opportunity to advance our global interests," he recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.
"There is a tremendous strategic upside to our growing engagement with India. That is why building a close US-India partnership should be one of the United States' highest priorities for the future. It is a unique opportunity with real promise for the global balance of power," he said.
Burns joined the State Department in 1983 and worked at posts in the Middle East and Africa before taking over the Russia portfolio at the National Security Council in the waning years of the Cold War, during the administration of President George H W Bush.
A 26-year veteran of the US Foreign Service, Burns is considered a brilliant career diplomat who besides India dealt with a wide range of issues, including Washington's efforts to mobilise international support to punish Iran for its alleged nuclear infringements.