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Antonella Mega, wife of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian citizen on death row in Iran, at their home in Toronto on Apr. 17, 2011.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Last year, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall was told his death sentence had been commuted to life in prison. On Sunday, officials at Tehran's notorious Evin prison summoned his wife and mother to a meeting where all were told to expect imminent hanging.

This 43-year-old Toronto shoe salesman is now, as he has been for four years, dangling on the strings of Iran's arbitrary and unpredictable "justice." He's a plaything. It appears part of the game is sending a message to Ottawa about testy relations. The paradox is Tehran doesn't say clearly what it wants.

Ottawa faces a quandary, one a little like negotiating with kidnappers. Offering concessions or better relations to prevent executions of your citizens isn't defensible. Belligerent words don't work. The two countries barely talk.

Ottawa faces no-win diplomacy and Mr. Ghassemi-Shall, it seems, is a hostage.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally protested this week, warning "the whole world will be watching." The case had reached the point where Canadian officials feared he might be running out of time, and decided they had little to lose with a top-level appeal.

Mr. Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian citizen who lived here since the 1990s, was arrested in 2008 while visiting his mother in Iran, charged with spying, and sentenced to death. Last year, he was told his death sentence would be changed to life in prison, but he returned to death row. On Sunday, he was summoned to a meeting at Evin prison where he was told, according to his sister Parvin, that he would be hanged soon.

It's impossible to disprove the spying allegations of a secret court, but Mr. Ghassemi-Shall's wife, Antonella Mega, insists they're based on blatantly false evidence. Canadian Maziar Bahari, the former Newsweek reporter imprisoned in Iran in 2009, notes Tehran has lied about spying so often its charges should be presumed false.

More than that, it's probably trumped up with intent. As with Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian permanent resident and software developer sentenced to death for obscenity on websites he didn't run, Iran is probably using Mr. Ghassemi-Shall as a pawn, according to Houchang Hassan-Yari, an Iran expert and international relations professor at the Royal Military College.

"I believe they were targeted," he said. "They do it to make a point, to tell the Canadian government that they have to change their behaviour. It's a kind of pressure tactic."

It is, he said, a poke at a Canadian government that has vocally condemned Iran, led annual United Nations campaigns condemning its rights record, and adopted sanctions with relish.

Relations are almost hostile, and the two countries post chargé d'affaires, not ambassadors, to each others' capitals. Policy disputes have been amplified by incidents, notably the 2003 prison beating death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.

Iran doesn't recognize dual citizens so they don't accept the right of Canadian officials to visit Mr. Ghassemi-Shall. Canadian officials are getting their information on his case from his sister, not Iran's government.

They are concerned Iran might be interested in some tit-for-tat leverage, but if so, Iranian officials haven't said what it is. That would be an admission the charges are false.

Canada has asked other countries to join the diplomatic pressure, to send the message that it's more than a dispute with Canada. Another tactic, Mr. Hassan-Yari said, is to encourage NGOs and MPs to appeal for Mr. Ghassemi-Shall's release. But Ottawa has little leverage.

In the meantime, public pressure like that applied by Mr. Harper, and diplomatic pressure from other countries, are the best tools available. Iran has often appeared to back off executions amid international outcry – even if they are only delayed, to be raised as threats again later.

Ms. Mega, Mr. Ghassemi-Shall's wife, is grateful for Mr. Harper's public comments; she wanted them to come sooner. And in Iran, Mr. Ghassemi-Shall's sister, Parvin, thinks now that the best hope for her brother is pressure from abroad. "We think that if all of this pressure is put on the Iranian government, it could actually save Hamid's life."

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