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Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vladivostok, Russia September 8, 2012.GRIGORY DUKOR/Reuters

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his government will continue to try and help 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. Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a 43-year-old Toronto shoe salesman convicted of espionage, and Saeed Malekpour, a 36-year-old web programmer from Richmond Hill, Ont. who developed software the Iranian government says was used to spread pornography, have both been sentenced to death and could be executed at any time.

A third Iranian-Canadian – a 37-year-old blogger Hussein Derakhshan of Toronto – was convicted in 2010 of spreading anti-government propaganda and sentenced to 19 and a half years in prison.

"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 Co-operation summit in this Russian port city.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird – citing a long list of reasons including concerns over the safety of Canadian diplomats – announced Friday that it was closing its embassy in Tehran and expelling all Iranian diplomats stationed in Canada. The move was praised by the Israeli government and slammed by Tehran as "hostile behaviour."

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of Iran's influential parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, was quoted by the official Fars news agency saying there could be an "immediate and decisive" response to Canada's decision to sever diplomatic relations. "It is essential that the foreign ministry respond to this action by Canada on the basis of national interests," Mr. Boroujerdi was quoted as saying.

Mr. Harper suggested Sunday that he was expecting some form of retaliation from Tehran.

"We have terminated our diplomatic presence there precisely because we are concerned by the behaviour and the capacity for increasingly bad behaviour of the government of Iran. So nothing would surprise me, but that is all the more reason why it's essential our Canadian personnel no longer be present," Mr. Harper said.

"Do I anticipate a specific actions? No, not necessarily. But as I say, we should all know by now that this is a regime that does not stop at anything. That's the reality of the situation."

Mr. Baird said Canada was severing ties for many reasons, including Iran's nuclear program, its threats against Israel, its funding of groups Ottawa considers to be terrorist organizations, and its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It wasn't immediately clear which embassy Canadian citizens in Iran could now turn to for help. British citizens have been receiving consular support from the Swedish Embassy in Tehran since last November, when the British Embassy was closed after it was invaded and ransacked by radical Islamic students.

The United States hasn't had an embassy in Tehran since Islamist students took over the building in 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage for more than a year. The Swiss Embassy currently provides consular support for U.S. citizens in Iran.

While the APEC gathering in Vladivostok was supposed to focus on fostering trade among the 23 member economies, much of the summit was sideswiped by debates over the Middle East.

Mr. Harper used part of his bilateral meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao to urge them to reconsider the backing they have given Mr. al-Assad even as he has used the Syrian military to try and crush an 18-month-old popular uprising.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attended APEC on behalf of campaigning President Barack Obama, did the same to little avail. She said Sunday that it might soon be time to recognize that Russia in particular was not going to end its support for Mr. al-Assad.

"We have to be realistic. We haven't seen eye-to-eye with Russia on Syria," she said after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "That may continue, and if it does continue, then we will work with like-minded states to support the Syrian opposition to hasten the day when Assad falls and to help prepare Syria for a democratic future and help it get back on its feet again."

Mr. Lavrov was unmoved. "Our American partners have a prevailing tendency to threaten and increase pressure, adopt ever more sanctions against Syria and against Iran," he said.

"Russia is fundamentally against this, since for resolving problems you have to engage the countries you are having issues with and not isolate them."