It is the most momentous release of a Canadian prisoner from a Middle East jail cell in years, and it has nothing to do with Tarek Loubani and John Greyson.
These two men arrived home on Friday to a heroes’ welcome after seven weeks in a Cairo prison, but the far more important homecoming occurred a day earlier, to much less fanfare.
Hamid Ghassemi-Shall’s release from Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where he spent years on death row, is arguably much more significant, because it is part of a wider diplomatic strategy on the part of Iran, meant to prove that its new president, Hassan Rouhani, is willing to usher in less hostile relations with the West, promising substantial talks around his country’s nuclear ambitions.
The former shoe salesman, who travelled in 2008 to Tehran to visit his mother, was arrested on charges of espionage and subjected to physical beatings and psychological torture while he waited to be hanged. Ottawa’s concerted efforts to secure his freedom failed. Ultimately, his release was secured as part of a larger release of 80 political prisoners freed by Iran on the eve of this month’s United Nations gathering in New York.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who severed Ottawa’s diplomatic relations with Tehran last year, has rightly welcomed Mr. Ghassemi-Shall’s release. Given the Iranian regime’s track record, he is also wise to remain wary of its current charm offensive, but Canada’s stubborn, unyielding skepticism over Mr. Rouhani’s broader intentions is out of step with most of its allies.
Speaking at the UN this month, John Baird, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, sounded only slightly less hostile than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who dismissed Mr. Rouhani as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Ottawa’s enmity toward Iran should be tempered by confidence-building measures. It should harness the momentum of Mr. Ghassemi-Shall’s release to press for the freedom of Saeed Malekpour and other Canadians still serving time in Iranian jails. That is tough to do when Ottawa’s embassy in Tehran remains out of service.
Mr. Baird has said it would take more than a “smile” to bring about any kind of thaw with Iran. Admittedly, some of Mr. Rouhani’s moves may be rhetorical – such as his government’s recent announcement it would cancel an annual anti-Zionist conference. But this is the first time in 32 years that Iran has expressed a desire to reset its relationship with the West.
Mr. Ghassemi-Shall’s release is real. It is substantial. It is more than a smile. In Canada’s eyes, it should count for something.