RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In a surprising move, several of America's top allies in the Middle East have severed diplomatic ties with the Gulf state of Qatar, another key U.S. ally. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates say they made this move because of what they say are Qatar's support of terrorist organizations. The Qatari government says the charges are lies and fabrications. For more on this, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent David Welna. He is in Sydney, Australia, covering the visit of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Hey, David, thanks for being here.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Can you talk us through what's happening here? This - clearly, this is a big dispute between - among all of these countries.
WELNA: Yes, you know, this was a coordinated action today against Qatar, which is a tiny Persian Gulf nation that's loaded with natural gas deposits. It's also home to the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, with 10,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there.
But what Americans most likely know Qatar for is that it's the home of Al Jazeera, the Arab-language news channel that's covered a lot of the turmoil in the region that's resulted from the Arab Spring. And, you know, that made autocratic governments in the Arab world resent Qatar because they feel Al Jazeera's coverage cements more unrest and is thus a threat to their hereditary monarchies.
There's also Qatar's fairly close relationship with Iran. They've developed gas fields together, while Saudi Arabia and these other Sunni-led nations that are cutting diplomatic ties to Shiite Iran as their arch rival. And they also accuse Qatar of supporting terror organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
MARTIN: So a whole range of geopolitical issues, sounds like. You're there with Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, James Mattis, secretary of defense. What are they saying? What's the U.S. saying on this?
WELNA: Well, you know, even though this is a pretty serious falling out among some of the United States' key allies, publicly at least, President Trump's top foreign policy officials here are presenting it as no big deal. But, you know, it comes just 10 days after President Trump addressed an anti-terrorism summit of Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia.
And some see Trump's siding there with Sunni monarchs and his rhetoric against Iran as having given a kind of green light to blackballing this Gulf nation, which is seen by its neighbors as having questionable loyalties. Here in Sydney, Secretary of State Tillerson attributed this imbroglio to what he characterized as a growing list of longstanding irritants in the region that, as he put, have bubbled up to a level of - where action had to be taken.
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REX TILLERSON: We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences. And we - if there's any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC remain unified. I do not expect that this will have any significant impact, if any impact at all, on the unified - the unified fight against terrorism in the region or globally.
MARTIN: What about Secretary Mattis, David? He's someone who, as a top military general, has had long experience in the Gulf. What did he have to say?
WELNA: Well, he too said this should have no impact on the campaign against the Islamic State in that region. That - despite the fact that Bahrain, one of the Gulf states that's cut ties with Qatar, hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Mattis said the real issue in the Gulf is Iran, which he accused of stirring the pot there.
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JAMES MATTIS: I believe Iran's actions speak louder than anyone's words, and they are going to incite the international community in that region to try to block them in the various destabilizing efforts they are undertaking right now.
MARTIN: So just - what's the practical effect of this, David? What does this mean for Qataris?
WELNA: Well, you know, it's shutting down air and sea travel between Qatar and those four other countries. And while there was a similar falling out three years ago between these Gulf nations that took about eight months to patch up, this time Egypt is also cutting ties because of Qatar's tolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was ousted from power by Egypt's authoritarian rulers, who consider it a terror organization. How all of this will affect the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State remains to be seen. But, you know, I think to say it may complicate things could well be an understatement.
MARTIN: NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Thanks, David.
WELNA: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.