The telephone line had been secretly set up. President Trump waited on the other end. All President Hassan Rouhani of Iran had to do was come out of his hotel suite and walk into a secure room where Mr. Trump’s voice would be piped in via speaker.
Mr. Rouhani and his aides were blindsided by the offer, presented to them by President Emmanuel Macron of France on an unannounced visit last Tuesday night to their quarters at the Millenium Hilton Hotel near the United Nations, where world leaders had converged for the annual General Assembly.
It was a mission lifted out of a Hollywood thriller. Mr. Macron has sought for months to broker a thaw in the standoff between the United States and Iran, which has threatened to escalate into a new Middle East war.
Accompanied by a small team of advisers, Mr. Macron awaited an answer outside the Iranian leader’s suite, according to three people with knowledge of the diplomatic gambit, which was first reported on Monday by The New Yorker. Messages were passed between them via Mr. Rouhani’s aides.
In the end, Mr. Rouhani refused even to come out of his room. Mr. Macron left empty-handed and Mr. Trump was left hanging.
With no guarantee that Mr. Trump would end the onerous sanctions he has imposed on Iran, Mr. Rouhani feared he would be trapped in an encounter that Mr. Trump could exploit as a headline-grabbing success, the people with knowledge of the episode said.
It also was clear that Mr. Rouhani might suffer a political backlash at home, where hard-liners were already fuming at the mere possibility that Mr. Rouhani would consider a dialogue with Mr. Trump.
For the Iranians, however, the incident underscored what they see as Mr. Trump’s eagerness, bordering on desperation, to recreate a theatrical moment like he achieved with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, at their Singapore summit in June 2018. For them, it was a validation that their strategy of escalating tensions in response to Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions was paying off.