In a sign of the close relationship between the two nations, Chinese and Iranian air force officials have discussed greater cooperation.

Beijing expressed its desire to forge closer ties with the Iranian air force during a meeting on Monday. The head of the Chinese air force told his Iranian counterpart that he wanted to take cooperation to the next level, according to Reuters.

China, Iran Eyeing Greater Air Force Cooperation

Military cooperation adds another facet to close relationship

High-level military contacts between the two nations have become a regular occurrence. During the latest meeting Ma Xiaotian told Hassan Shah Safi that relations were progressing well.

“(We) hope that cooperation can go up another level,” Ma said, according to a statement issued by China‘s Defence Ministry. A Chinese admiral visited Tehran in October and two Chinese warships docked at Iran‘s Bandar Abbas port for the first time ever in 2014.

The ships took part in a joint naval exercise in the Gulf and an Iranian admiral was later shown around a Chinese submarine and warships. Military matters are far from the only area of cooperation between Tehran and Beijing.

Shah Safi was welcomed to Beijing b\y high-ranking Chinese officials and will stay in China until Friday. He is set to visit CATIC Company of China Aerospace Organization on Wednesday, and is also scheduled to meet Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission General Khoji Liang.

China encouraged Iran nuclear deal

The two enjoy close diplomatic, economic, trade and energy ties, and Beijing was instrumental in pressurizing both the United States and Iran to reach a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program. Thanks to that deal, United States, European Union and United Nations sanctions will be lifted on the condition that Iran commits to severely limit its nuclear program.

For years it was suspected that Tehran was working on a nuclear bomb, but thanks to the multilateral deal that possibility looks to have been averted. The worry for Western governments is how the deal will impact Iran’s relations with other powers such as Russia and China.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that Beijing has a keen interest in strong relations with Iran, which possesses huge amounts of oil that could be invaluable to oil-hungry China. While the economic implications of the deal could be huge, military cooperation is another hugely important area of consideration.

Future perspectives for military cooperation

David Oualaalou claims that closer ties could lead to a treaty under which Beijing is allowed to maintain a military presence on Iranian territory or near the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. consistently tries to keep the waterway free of trouble so that oil shipments can pass freely.

The U.S. should keep a close watch on developing relations between China and Iran. “Developing military relations between both countries will reinforce stability and security on either ends of the Asian continent,” said Iranian defense minister Hossein Dehghan.

Such comments suggest that the two nations share a vision for security in Asia, and U.S. officials may soon find themselves with another geopolitical headache. Tensions with Beijing were inflamed recently after an incident in the disputed South China Sea, where a U.S. warship sailed within 12 miles of a recently-constructed Chinese artificial island.

Iran new theater in U.S.-China geopolitical battle?

China is increasingly challenging U.S. hegemony in the international sphere, and Iran could represent an attempt to do so in the Middle East. China may eventually be able to project military power in the Middle East, or if that is not its overall aim then it will prove a distraction from the Pacific that could divert U.S. attention and resources.

While the Obama administration looks to have little to lose by taking a tough stance in the South China Sea at the moment, the long-term picture is more worrying. Despite a recent economic slowdown Beijing is increasingly influential in international politics and is slowly chipping away at U.S. prominence in order to add to its own reputation and clout.

China stands to benefit in the short-term from a close relationship with Iran, due to oil sales and other trade deals made possible by the lifting of sanctions. In the medium term Iran could serve as a regional base from which China will be able to project military power, while in the long term we could see U.S. influence in the Middle East curtailed by the Chinese presence.

As Obama takes a hard line in order to curb Republican criticism during election season, the next government will inherit a difficult set of geopolitical issues that could change the landscape of international relations.