Arc volcanism across Iran is dominated by a Paleogene pulse, despite protracted and presumably continuous subduction along the northern margin of the Neotethyan ocean for most of Mesozoic and Cenozoic time. New U-Pb and 40Ar/39Ar data from volcanic arcs in central and northern Iran constrain the duration of the pulse to ∼17 Myr, roughly 10% of the total duration of arc magmatism. Late Paleocene-Eocene volcanic rocks erupted during this flare-up have major and trace element characteristics that are typical of continental arc magmatism, whereas the chemical composition of limited Oligocene basalts in the Urumieh-Dokhtar belt and the Alborz Mountains which were erupted after the flare-up ended are more consistent with derivation from the asthenosphere. Together with the recent recognition of Eocene metamorphic core complexes in central and east central Iran, stratigraphic evidence of Eocene subsidence, and descriptions of Paleogene normal faulting, these geochemical and geochronological data suggest that the late Paleocene-Eocene magmatic flare-up was extension related. We propose a tectonic model that attributes the flare-up to decompression melting of lithospheric mantle hydrated by slab-derived fluids, followed by Oligocene upwelling and melting of enriched mantle that was less extensively modified by hydrous fluids. We suggest that Paleogene magmatism and extension was driven by an episode of slab retreat or slab rollback following a Cretaceous period of flat slab subduction, analogous to the Laramide and post-Laramide evolution of the western United States.