Joh Bjelke-Petersen & the Shah of Iran

By Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz 

On the face of it, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Joh Bjelke-Petersen had very little in common. One was an arrogant despot who ruled without regard for democracy or the law, his regime buttressed by a corrupt elite and a brutal police force. The other was the premier of Queensland. But when the two men happened to meet, they found they shared a fear. The occasion was the Shah of Iran’s state visit to Australia in September 1974.

The Shah was riding high. His reign assured by a CIA-orchestrated coup, he’d declared himself heir to the kings of ancient Persia and lavished millions on confabulated grandeur. Admired in the West as a suave and sophisticated moderniser, he was flush with oil money. He increased Iran’s military capacity and sought to extend his influence to the Indian Ocean. Australia was hoping to sell him stuff, including uranium.

No sooner had the King of Kings and his fashion-plate wife, Empress Farah, been greeted with regal pomp in Canberra than they were off on a whirlwind national tour. The first stop was Queensland.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen, then in his sixth year as premier, took personal care of the imperial dignitaries. After a quick turn around historic Cairns, the Shah donned his white shoes and embarked for nearby Green Island. Surrounded by bodyguards and protected by 86 police officers, the visitors inspected tropical fish and curious tourists. Joh stuck close.

According to the premier, they talked about the threat of communism. Like him, the Shah was deeply worried about the red menace. Not only was Iran a potential market for Queensland mutton and minerals but its iron-fisted ruler was a man after Bjelke-Petersen’s own heart.

The next month, the premier called an early state election to be fought against the “socialist, communist-inspired policies of the federal Labor government”. By then, the Shah had returned home, but not before he had signed a trade agreement with the federal government that opened the way for Iran to purchase Australian uranium.

By late 1978, the deal to provide uranium to Iranian nuclear power plants – modelled on a secret US–Iran nuclear co-operation agreement – was ready to be signed. But the Shah was on the skids. Iranians were responding to his repression and corruption with an Islamic revolution, not a communist one. His regime collapsed, he fled into exile, and the many statues of him were torn down. The uranium deal was abandoned.

Thanks to a massive gerrymander, Bjelke-Petersen won seven state elections. He then ran for prime minister, notwithstanding the absence of a federal poll. On his own recommendation, he was knighted for services to parliamentary democracy.

Both the Shah and Bjelke-Petersen are gone, but the leftist threat remains as potent as ever. Rumour has it Clive Palmer wants to erect a statue of Sir Joh in Brisbane.

About the author Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.