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foreign relations

Antonella Mega, wife of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian citizen on death row in Iran, poses for a photograph at her home in Toronto on Sept. 9, 2012.Matthew Sherwood

Israel on Sunday applauded the Harper government's suspension of diplomatic ties with Iran, while the abrupt move has left Canada's large Iranian expatriate community torn between anxiety and guarded hope.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Canada's decision, announced last Friday, to recall its diplomats from Tehran and expel Iranian diplomats from Ottawa. "I call on the entire international community, or at least on its responsible members, to follow in Canada's determined path and set Iran moral and practical red lines, lines that will stop its race to achieve nuclear weapons," he told his cabinet.

Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly called for tougher international action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and has hinted that Israel is considering military options to stop it. Iranian leaders insist their nuclear program is for peaceful power-generation purposes.

It is still unclear what triggered Canada's decision to close its Tehran embassy. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has cited a long list of reasons, including concerns over the safety of Canadian diplomats, the "military dimension" of its nuclear program and Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

But the decision will have echoes in Canada, which is home to the second largest Iranian diaspora in the world after the United States. It could impact the fate of two Canadians who are on death row in Iran, and many Iranian-Canadians worry about its effect on their business and family connections.

The news came as a particularly personal blow to Antonella Mega, whose husband, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, has been sentenced to death in Iran and could be executed at any time.

Although it has been a difficult few days, she said she sustains herself with the hope that this full-blown diplomatic crisis may help him win a reprieve or that diplomats from other countries might step in to help him.

"I am definitely a big proponent of looking for the silver lining," Ms. Mega said in an interview, noting that Iran has pardoned other death-row prisoners in the recent past.

"People tend to lose hope when talks break down," she added. "I want to recognize that there are opportunities. … I think they know Hamid is not a spy and for them to carry out any sort of drastic reprisal would not be in their best interests."

Mr. Ghassemi-Shall, a shoe salesman, had lived in Canada since the 1990s but returned to Iran to visit his mother in 2008. He was arrested, charged with spying and sentenced to death. His wife said those charges are based on false evidence.

Ms. Mega said Canadian diplomats have not been able to see her husband in prison – although his sister visits him when she gets permission – but had been able to speak to Iranian authorities about his case.

"I am just going to talk to whoever is listening," Ms. Mega said. "If there is a kind soul who can help us establish a dialogue with Iranian authorities, I will follow that person."

Among the many countries that have sanctions on Iran but still maintain embassies in Tehran are Australia, France, the Netherlands and Germany. Britain's embassy, however, has been closed since November when it was stormed by protesters and the U.S. has not had a diplomatic presence in Iran since its embassy staff was taken hostage in 1979.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government will continue to try to help the two Canadian citizens currently on death row in Iran, going through allies now that the Canadian embassy in Tehran is shuttered.

However, Mr. Harper admitted there was "minimal" chance that diplomats from any country could affect the decisions the Iranian government might take.

"We are continuing to aid our citizens there in co-operation with our partners and allies in the democratic world. The reality is that our influence, the influence of any party, on Iran, is minimal," Mr. Harper said Sunday when asked about the cases at the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Russian port city of Vladivostok.

Houchang Hassan-Yari, an Iran expert at the Royal Military College in Kingston who has close relatives in Iran, said Iran may have bet on using Mr. Ghassemi-Shall to send a message to the Harper government, which has been harshly critical of the Tehran regime.

The fate of the prisoners might now "be detached from their Canadian-ness," he added. "They and their families will have to convince the Iranians that their accusations are not founded and release them from prison or commute their sentences."

Prof. Hassan-Yari said another impact of the move may be that Canadians will not be able to get the visas or Iranian passports they require to travel back to see their relatives. The 2006 census found there are more than 120,000 Canadians of Iranian ancestry.

Mr. Harper suggested Sunday that he was expecting some form of retaliation, saying that "the capacity for increasingly bad behaviour" by Tehran was a reason he closed the embassy. "So nothing would surprise me," he said, "but that is all the more reason why it's essential our Canadian personnel no longer be present."