Organic petrography and geochemical analyses have been carried out on shales, carbonaceous shales and coals of the Shemshak Group (Upper Triassic–Middle Jurassic) from 15 localities along the Alborz Range of Northern Iran. Thermal maturity of organic matter (OM) has been investigated using vitrinite reflectance, Rock-Eval pyrolysis and elemental analysis of kerogen. Reflectance of autochthonous vitrinite varies from 0.6 to 2.2% indicating thermally early-mature to over-mature OM in the Shemshak Group, in agreement with other maturity parameters used. The shales of the Shemshak Group are characterized by poor to high residual organic carbon contents (0.13 to 5.84%) and the presence of hydrogen-depleted OM, predominantly as a consequence of oxidation of OM at the time of deposition and the hydrogen loss during petroleum generation. According to light-reflected microscopy results, vitrinite/vitrinite-like macerals are dominant in the kerogen concentrates from the shaly facies. The coals and carbonaceous shales of the Shemshak Group show a wide range in organic carbon concentration (3.5 to 88.6%) and composition (inertinite- and vitrinite-rich types), and thereby different petroleum potentials. Thermal modelling results suggest that low to moderate palaeo-heat flow, ranging from 47 to 79 mW m−2 (57 mW m−2 on average), affected the Central-Eastern Alborz basin during Tertiary time, the time of maximum burial of the Shemshak Group. The maximum temperature that induced OM maturation of the Shemshak Group seems to be related to its deep burial rather than to a very strong heat flow related to an uppermost Triassic–Liassic rifting. The interval of petroleum generation in the most deeply buried part of the Shemshak Group (i.e. Tazareh section) corresponds to Middle Jurassic–Early Cretaceous times. Exhumation of the Alborz Range during Late Neogene time, especially along the axis of the Central-Eastern Alborz, where maximum vitrinite reflectance values are recorded, probably destroyed possible petroleum accumulations. However, on the northern flank of the Central-Eastern Alborz, preservation of petroleum accumulations may be expected. The northern part of the basin therefore seems the best target for petroleum exploration.