``Hashemi, Hashemi, we want you to talk to us.'' The cry, from a group of chador-clad women sitting in the lobby of the Iranian parliament, resounds through the building. These women are teachers who have just completed a summer training session at Tehran University.
Before returning to their towns and villages throughout Iran they had hoped that Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, would grant them an audience.
After a few minutes, Mr. Rafsanjani appears, and is greeted with joyous shouts of ``God bless you, Hashemi!'' The speaker is obviously delighted by this demonstration of his popularity. With a slow wave of the hand he calms the women and says a few words on the important role played by teachers in an Islamic republic. He then explains that he has a very tight schedule and slips away.
``I wanted to see Mr. Hashemi,'' one of the women says, ``because, in our country, he is really the No. 2 after Imam Khomeini.''
Indeed, Rafsanjani's influence extends far beyond that of a parliament speaker, according to many Iranians and Western diplomats here. In addition to being speaker, he holds several key offices: he is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's representative to the Supreme Defense Council (which oversees Iran's conduct in its war with Iraq) and one of Tehran's Friday prayer leaders.
In several instances, Rafsanjani has also acted as virtual head of state. In June he paid official visits to Syrian President Hafez Assad and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. He later went to Peking and Tokyo where he and Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Vellayati had talks with Deng Xiaoping and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. These trips boosted Rafsanjani's prestige abroad and at home.
The rise of this former student of Ayatollah Khomeini began soon after the February 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. At that time, Rafsanjani had just been released from prison, where he had been held because of his opposition to the Shah. Khomeini made him a member of the Revolutionary Council, a shadowy body that ruled Iran until the election of the first president of the republic.
Rafsanjani's successful career is attributed to his political astuteness and adaptability. An Iranian official who knows him well explains that, unlike too many other clerics, Rafsanjani has quickly learned the rules of the political game. He loves the daily use of secular power and is very good at it, the official says, and moreover, he is a first-class orator and knows how to use the media.
Detractors of Rafsanjani can be found in Tehran's well-off, upper-class neighborhoods -- where most people remain staunch supporters of the former monarchy.
``He is an unscrupulous opportunist,'' one woman says. ``Since the revolution he has always managed to flow with the political tide.'' In the months that followed the revolution, she says, ``he maintained good contacts with the Tudeh Communist Party, but when Tudeh members were arrested in 1983, he began attacking them with scathing words.''
As one of the founding fathers of the ruling Islamic Republic Party, Rafsanjani was elected as a representative from Tehran to the first Islamic parliament in 1980. Soon afterward, his peers chose him as their speaker. But it was only in the fall of 1981, after the assassinations of both the then-prime minister and president of Iran, that Rafsanjani was given the opportunity to widen his political influence.
``There was a power vacuum in the country and he filled it,'' an Iranian diplomat says.
Rafsanjani's position was bolstered by his appointment as Khomeini's personal representative to the Supreme Defense Council.
Western diplomats who scrutinize Iranian parliamentary debates say Rafsanjani is a master in articulating compromises between the factions within his assembly.
He regularly comes out in support of private ownership and business, which ensures him the backing of the most conservative deputies who defend the interests of the powerful bazaar merchants. But, he also insists that the government do more for the deprived classes of Iranian society, which pleases the more radical members of the parliament.
Every weekday at 7:30 a.m. sharp, Rafsanjani opens the parliament session. It lasts until noon. From the rostrum, he listens to every intervention. After a quick lunch, the afternoon is spent in receiving guests in his office. Legislators, officials from all over the country, and foreign diplomats often lobby for weeks to be granted a short audience by the speaker. After his evening prayer, Rafsanjani rides home in his armored Mercedes.
Little is known about Rafsanjani's private life. He was born in the eastern town of Rafsanjan (hence his name) where his family owns a pistachio-tree plantation. In the late 1950s he studied theology in the holy city of Qom. There he quickly became an admirer of Khomeini who was then a professor and already a leading opponent of the imperial regime.
Rafsanjani graduated from the Qom theological seminary as a hojatolislam, a title which in the Islamic Shite clerical hierarchy puts him between a mullah and an ayatollah.
His brother, also a staunch opponent to the monarchy, lived in the United States until the fall of the Shah and is now the head of the Iranian Radio and Television.
Like most traditional Iranian women, Mrs. Rafsanjani lives in the shadow of her husband but is said to have an enormous influence on him behind the scenes. While he was in jail in the '70s, she raised their two daughters and two sons, one of whom recently completed his studies in a Belgian university.