TEHRAN (AP) Iran’s supreme leader ordered the country’s diplomats on March 14 to defend the country’s nuclear program, saying any retreat would undermine the country’s independence and Tehran’s other foreign policy goals.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran considers retreat over the nuclear issue … as breaking the country’s independence which will impose huge costs on the Iranian nation,” state television quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as telling diplomats brought home from Iran’s embassies across the world for consultations with Iranian leaders.

His comments echoed those of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who vowed to resist pressure from the U.N. Security Council to back down.

The five veto-wielding members of the council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – have been weighing proposals to persuade Iran to respond to concerns about its nuclear program. They were to resume their talks at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

The United States and its European allies want Iran to permanently abandon uranium enrichment and all related activities, a technology that can be used to produce nuclear fuel for reactors or materials for a nuclear bomb. Iran denies any intention to build weapons, saying it only wants to produce energy.

China expressed optimism that negotiations could still resolve the dispute, calling on Tehran to cooperate.

“Now there is still room to solve the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic negotiations,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang. “We hope Iran can cooperate closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency and do more to build up mutual confidence to help reach a solution.”

But Iran’s president said Iraq would not abandon its drive to produce nuclear fuel by what he called the harsh statements and pressures by Washington and its allies.

“Rest assured that the technology to produce nuclear fuel today is in the hands of the youth of this land and no power can take it back from us,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech attended by thousands in northern Iran. The crowd responded with chants of “nuclear energy is our right.”

The United States and its allies, he said, are angry because Iran has made progress in its nuclear program.

“Today, unfortunately, few big powers want, through coercion and bullying, prevent progress of nations… They are really angry that this great nation (Iran) is gaining access to the peaks of progress and development.”

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned that Iran’s government is taking the country in the “wrong direction,” repressing its own people and pursuing confrontation abroad.

Britain, France, Germany and the United States successfully pressed the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to report Iran to the Security Council last week after Tehran resumed nuclear research and small-scale uranium enrichment.

Iran has insisted it will never give up its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel. It restarted research-scale uranium enrichment in February, two years after voluntarily freezing the program during talks with Germany, Britain and France.

It also has threatened to start large-scale uranium enrichment if the council imposes any sanctions on the country. Iran only has an experimental nuclear research program and scientists say the Muslim nation is months away from resolving technical problems to launch any large-scale uranium enrichment.

IN early March, Iran offered what it called a “final proposal” to agree to suspend large-scale enrichment temporarily in return for IAEA recognition of its right to continue research-scale enrichment.