09/24/2013 06:46 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST

Canada distrustful of 'rapprochement' with Iran

Canada is holding back from opening any kind of diplomatic relations with Iran despite what seem to be conciliatory steps from its newly elected president Hassan Rouhani and the U.S.

U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, said he has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to begin negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program. Kerry will meet Thursday with Iran's foreign minister. ​

Rouhani, meanwhile, spoke of accommodating concerns over Tehran's nuclear ambitions and announced the release of almost 80 political prisoners, including a Canadian.

But, when asked Tuesday about Ottawa's attitude toward Iran, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared less optimistic.

"On the rapprochement, one will see," Harper said in Ottawa. "I certainly would not fault President Obama and our allies for trying, but my sincere advice would be, when it comes to the government of Iran, that we should carefully monitor deeds far more than words."

Harper added he has no plans to restore Canada's diplomatic presence in Tehran. A year ago, Canada withdrew its diplomats from Tehran and ordered Iran's 18 diplomats in Ottawa, including the chargé d'affaires, to leave the country.

The Canadian released from Tehran's notorious Evin prison is Hamid Ghassemi-Shall who was arrested in 2008 for espionage and sentenced to death in 2009.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, speaking to reporters in Montreal on Tuesday, said Ghassemi-Shall is with his Iranian family in Tehran.

"We want to encourage him, obviously, to return to Canada immediately before the situation changes," Baird said.

Baird said Ottawa wants to see "meaningful progress" on Iran's "abysmal human rights record."

"We also want to see them to take a step back from terrorism, whether it's Hezbollah, or supporting interference in just about every single one of its neighbours," he said.

Baird said the upcoming P5 + 1 meeting might make some progress on Iran's nuclear plans, although he added the group's four previous meetings accomplished nothing. The P5 + 1 is a group of countries — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany — charged with negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

Although many world leaders, including Rouhani, are addressing the General Assembly this week, Harper has again declined. Out of seven opportunities, he has spoken at the assembly only once.

In Ottawa Paul Dewar, the NDP critic for foreign affairs, said it would help if, “our prime minister would show up in New York when he has the opportunity.”

Dewar said what he called Canada’s disengagement on global issues, “has weakened Canada and its influence abroad.”

He added, “We are consistently lagging behind the world.”