Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday he broadly agreed with a French proposal aimed to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord. Photo: alexei druzhinin/kremlin/Reuters

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani kept open the door to diplomacy on Wednesday, backing European efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal despite rebuffing French attempts to broker a meeting between him and President Trump at the United Nations last week.

Mr. Rouhani said he broadly agreed with a French proposal under which the U.S. would lift sanctions in return for Iran’s full compliance with all terms of the nuclear pact and its guarantee for the security of navigation in the Persian Gulf.

“The road has not ended,” Mr. Rouhani said in his weekly cabinet meeting, broadcast on state television. “The Europeans are still making efforts.”

The Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the multilateral nuclear accord last year and imposed harsh sanctions on Iran. Washington is trying to coerce Tehran to negotiate a more comprehensive nuclear deal that also addresses its conventional missiles and support for militias in the Middle East.

Amid escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf, some world leaders are urging the U.S. and Iran to begin talks on a possible new nuclear deal. But neither side seems willing to make the first move. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/Zuma Press

In a push against the U.S. sanctions that have hobbled its economy, Iran has abandoned some of the deal’s terms in recent months. The U.S. also has accused Iran of orchestrating several attacks on oil tankers in the region and on Saudi energy infrastructure, which Tehran has denied. Meanwhile, Iran and the U.S. shot down each other’s drones, and Iran seized a British-flagged vessel in apparent retaliation for the capture of its own tanker in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. The impounded Stena Impero tanker left the Islamic Republic last week after two months’ detention.

French President Emmanuel Macron separately met with Messrs. Trump and Rouhani several times during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, trying to set up what would have been the first meeting between Iranian and American presidents since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The effort collapsed as Iran insisted that the U.S. lift sanctions before negotiations start, while Mr. Trump wanted to meet first.

Mr. Rouhani’s comments on Wednesday marked a fresh diplomatic overture to Europe after last week’s push back.

Mr. Rouhani said he refused to talk to Mr. Trump in New York because, although the French and the British said the U.S. president was ready to meet on Iran’s terms, Mr. Trump publicly said he would expand the sanctions.

“I asked our European friends, ‘Which one should we buy? Your word that says the U.S. is ready, or that of the U.S. president?’” Mr. Rouhani said.

Echoing the president’s skepticism of the U.S., Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday, in a meeting with Revolutionary Guard commanders broadcast on state television, that the U.S. had by now realized that its “maximum-pressure” campaign had backfired.

“The Americans lately, in order to make it look like Iran is surrendering and to force our president to negotiate, resorted to begging and made their European friends mediate,” Mr. Khamenei said.

Yet, Mr. Macron in New York nearly succeeded in starting a conversation between the two leaders, according to a French diplomat. With the agreement of the Iranians and the Americans, the French set up a secured phone line hoping the two presidents would speak on the phone. The scheme was earlier reported by the New Yorker magazine.

After having dinner at a nearby pizzeria, Mr. Macron went to the Millennium Hilton hotel where the Iranians were staying to take President Trump’s call with Mr. Rouhani. But the Iranians never came to the phone, instead Mr. Macron picked up and thanked Trump for calling, the diplomat said.

“Iran wanted me to lift the sanctions imposed on them in order to meet. I said, of course, NO!” Mr. Trump said on Twitter last week. The White House declined to comment further.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Wednesday confirmed on state television that there had been a phone call between Messrs. Macron and Trump that Mr. Rouhani declined to join.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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